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Leap of Faith



M. Night Shyamalan, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.0



Posted: August 6, 2002

By Laurence Station

Signs, the latest film from Sixth Sense wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan, continues the writer/director's fascination with the theme of the paranormal coexisting snugly alongside the pedestrian. The surprise 1999 blockbuster The Sixth Sense -- which dealt with a boy who could communicate with the dead -- and 2000's Unbreakable (which concerned itself with the real-world manifestation of superheroic powers) -- both mixed the fantastic and the familiar in disquieting (and oft-too-quiet) ways.

Signs centers on recently widowed Pennsylvania farmer and former Episcopalian minister Graham Hess (solidly portrayed by Mel Gibson), who lives with his two children -- Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin) -- and his younger brother, Merrill (nicely handled by Joaquin Phoenix), in an isolated and emotionally bottled-up farmhouse.

The action starts when Graham awakens one morning to discover flattened stalks in his immense cornfields, forming a mysterious and inexplicably huge crop circle pattern. This prompts Graham's friend, local police officer Caroline Paski (the talented Cherry Jones), to come out to the farm and investigate, but strangely enough, the circle draws no other attention from either the nearby town or the news media.

That seemingly minor oversight becomes a frustratingly major one, as it's soon revealed that similar circle and line formations are appearing in other locations around the world, and receiving intense media scrutiny. Ultimately, the crop circles are revealed to be landing signs for an invading armada of extraterrestrials. Graham and family are forced to hunker down in the farmhouse, fending off the invaders during one harrowing and suspense filled night. But Shyamalan irritatingly refuses to tell us why the media ignores Grahamís crop circle, and no military or other government defense of his farm -- seemingly forgotten amongst all the other crop circles -- is forthcoming. It's a glaring hole in the plot, and the film (not to mention the audience's crucial suspension of disbelief) never recovers from this huge distraction. If Shyamalan intended the alien invasion as a grand metaphor for Graham confronting his demons, fine, but then why involve the rest of the world in the manís personal redemption?

Other irritations involve too obvious contrivances, such as when it's revealed early on that Graham's son Morgan has an asthma problem and is seen using an inhaler (which obviously will be left behind when the familyís hiding from the aliens and needs it most), to complete lapses in common sense, as when Graham discovers one of the creatures locked up in a neighboring residence and, rather than informing the authorities of this alarming situation, returns home and begins boarding up his house in anticipation of the coming Armageddon.

Shyamalan (who makes a cameo as the person responsible for the auto-related death of Graham's wife) knows how to stage a scene. The film's framing and lighting are appropriate to the mood he's keen to establish. And he coaxes precious, yet smart, performances from the younger actors. Likewise, the score by James Newton Howard is moody and jarring and Tak Fujimoto's photography effectively grim and muted in tone. As a B-movie staged with A-list worthies, Signs is near pitch-perfect.

The problem is Shyamalan's insistence on connecting Graham's tragedy and subsequent loss of faith with the appearance of vile aliens from outer space. The last words Graham's wife Colleen (Patricia Kalember) speaks to him before dying are custom fit in their prophetic meaning to Signs' too easy resolution. It's as if Shyamalan contrived an alien invasion to fit Graham's tragedy rather than simply using the misfortune to add shading to the fallen preacher's character. The contrivances don't come across as signs of Graham's renewed faith in the Almighty, so much as the director's heavy-handed attempt to overly justify the cataclysmic events unleashed upon the world.

If Signs had stuck to a B-grade plot garbed in A-list clothing, emphasizing the claustrophobic elements and not belaboring the expositional aspects of the tale, it would have been a more enjoyable and thrill-packed ride. As it stands, the film veers dangerously close to Hokumville, with Graham reaffirming his belief by going through a mightily elaborate, Job-ian trial that, if anything, should have just affected his farm and not the entire world. It's clear, after all, that Shyamalan wants to isolate Graham and his family during this crisis: not even the friendly local officer shows up to help. Had Shyamalan stuck more faithfully to that idea, not involving the rest of the planet, Signs would have proven an intimate, chilling and quite effective little thriller. As it stands, the film is merely an extremely well-staged and competently watchable confection, providing one doesn't take everything that happens onscreen as a genuine article of faith.

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 Ratings Key:
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 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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