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(2002) (Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix) (PG-13)

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Suspense/Thriller: A family deals with what increasingly looks like an alien invasion that's taking place across the world and on their small, rural farm.
Graham Hess (MEL GIBSON) is a single father who's raising his kids, Morgan (RORY CULKIN) and Bo (ABIGAIL BRESLIN), on their Bucks County, PA farm. A former reverend, Graham has given up religion due to the untimely death of his wife, Colleen (PATRICIA KALEMBER), some six months ago in an incident that involved local veterinarian Ray Reddy (M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN).

Local police officer Caroline Paski (CHERRY JONES) tries to help out, while Graham's younger adult brother, Merrill (JOAQUIN PHOENIX), has moved in to do the same. That all changes, however, when large and unexplained crop circles suddenly show up in the family's cornfield.

Their fascination with them turns into horror when they see TV footage that not only shows similar circles appearing around the world, but also indicate what looks like the beginning of an invasion by extraterrestrial visitors. As things progressively worsen, the family finds both their safety and beliefs severely tested.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Years ago, in my childhood, not only was I afraid of the standard ghosts and monsters under the bed and in the closet that have haunted and continue to haunt kids across generations and classes, but also the thought of UFOs and aliens. I don't quite recall any particular catalyst for that fear, but I distinctly remember worrying about aliens arriving, abducting and performing those bizarre, onboard experiments on me.

In that sense, I'm staring to wonder whether writer/director M. Night Shyamalan also experienced a similar childhood, as half of his films have now hit rather close to home with my personal experiences. Of course, now I'm just a movie reviewer and he's a successful filmmaker, so our paths haven't exactly run in parallel.

Then again, neither has his success. While his first film, "Wide Awake" was barely a blip on the cinematic radar screen, his 1999 follow-up, "The Sixth Sense," was a huge hit. Not only did it blow away viewers and most critics alike, but it also made a lot of money and garnered some impressive Oscar nominations.

Unfortunately - but also somewhat fortunately in the overall scheme of things - his third film, 2000's "Unbreakable," was not met with as much enthusiasm simply because it wasn't as good (although it was better than much of what was delivered that year). Such "failure" (around $95 million domestically) was actually a good thing as it helped lower the bar for the filmmaker's subsequent efforts. After all, can you imagine if that film was just as good as the second and he then had to attempt to follow them? The bar and expectations would have been so high that they'd be next to impossible to surmount.

That's particularly true when the next effort would be about crop circles. Yes, that agricultural phenomenon that's captured the attention of scores of people around the world and even become something of a joke among naysayers.

In Shyamalan's "Signs," such circles don't repeatedly occur and ultimately aren't the prominent feature of this part campy, part spooky and certainly spiritualistic suspense film. Instead, they're indicators of what's to come and namely that's an intriguing, sometimes scary and somewhat flawed tale that hits upon some of the same thematic material that's fueled or at least been found in the director's previous works.

Repeating his examination of and/or apparent obsession with, if you will, death, spiritualism and otherworldly things, Shyamalan - who works from his own script - uses the alien invasion element as a means of exploring his protagonist's worldview and beliefs (or shattered lack thereof).

Thus, those looking for a "kick some alien butt" special effects extravaganza along the lines of "Independence Day" are apt to be disappointed. In fact, the aliens don't physically show up until quite late in the film -- although their presence is felt throughout most of it - which is when the most satisfying and unsatisfying moments near simultaneously occur.

The best, of course, involve the scenes where we don't actually see the aliens, but know that they're there, just on the other side of the door. Letting the viewer's imagination do most of the work for him, Shyamalan creates some terrifically tense and taut moments that should remind viewers of the similarly classic scenes from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Unfortunately, the third act has two glaring problems, although one is coincidental while the other is purposeful. Since the family in a "safe room" element is rather similar to that in this year's earlier "Panic Room" (although the intruders are decidedly different), comparisons to that feature will be inevitable, especially when a certain medical flare-up is used to heighten the tension.

The bigger problem is that the filmmaker broke down and just couldn't resist the temptation to show one of the aliens in the big finale that's not as successful, believable or fulfilling as it tries and hopes to be. In fact, this is yet another of those films that builds on its premise to the point that there's no easy, satisfactory or credible way to conclude the matters.

Other than a very weak explanation for the ceasing of hostilities and the lame way to eradicate the beings (although the latter could have resulted in some fun scenes if handled just right), I like what Shyamalan was going for in terms of tying together the spiritualism and sci-fi element. Alas, the execution of that doesn't quite work as well as it might and probably should have.

The result is a tiny bit of a letdown, especially with the filmmaker oddly feeling compelled to repeat some earlier material - much like a TV murder mystery - to remind us of what was earlier said and seen. Had the material in question been confusing, that would have been one thing, but it's not and is rather easy to connect to the concluding moments.

When not trying to spook, scare or enlighten viewers, Shyamalan deliver some decent family moments (including a gut-wrenching emotional flashback) as well as humor and comic relief. The latter - from the melodramatic, but effective opening title sequence to something of a spoof of the famous, grainy and handheld footage of Bigfoot from decades ago -- occasionally and apparently purposefully teeters on being campy. Thankfully, one of that goes too far in that direction and the comic relief is obviously welcomed.

As far as the performances are concerned, they're solid across the board, with Mel Gibson ("We Were Soldiers," "What Women Want"), as usual, delivering a charismatic take on the fallen reverend. Joaquin Phoenix ("Quills," "Gladiator") is good playing the increasing alien-obsessed brother, while Rory Culkin ("You Can Count on Me," "Richie Rich") and Abigail Breslin (making her debut) are also good playing the kids. Cherry Jones ("The Perfect Storm," "Erin Brockovich") is the only other character who gets more than a few scenes, but she pretty much disappears about midway through.

Despite its various problems that prevent it from being as terrific as it often seems it might be, the film is still quite entertaining - in an edge of your seat fashion - in its smaller-scale representation of a decidedly less than friendly encounter with otherworldly visitors. "Signs" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed July 23, 2002 / Posted August 2, 2002

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