No Surer Signs

One approaches the films of M. Night Shyamalan with the slightly hysterical goodwill of a parent attending a school play. Senses gaping, disbelief suspended a mile high, one so wants the evening to go well. And if clumsiness and mawkishness should rule the hour, well, so what? We'll clap like seals and go home happy that no one flubbed his or her lines or knocked over the scenery. The reason for this, I think, is the transparent sincerity of Shyamalan's effort to entertain. In today's Hollywood, it looks like innocence. Limpidly free of the contemporary vices of deftness, velocity and panache, Shyamalan works hard for his audience, and you can feel it. The carefulness of his settings, the thoughtfulness of his characters, the occasional crumminess of his dialogue -- his heavy hand makes us trust him, and trust the gravity of his intent to please and, beyond that, to communicate.

His new film, Signs, for example, begins with a man lurching upright in bed, gasping awake as if forcibly ejected from sleep. The camera skulks through a dim, modest interior and on a wall we see, blazing with inane obviousness, the dust penumbra around the white outline of a crucifix. A crucifix, in other words, that has just been taken off the wall. There's no missing the 10-ton thud of this thematic statement as it lands, but instead of sighing and rubbing my head, I found myself nodding in encouragement, lips pursed. ("OK, I think I see what you're driving at -- the nightmare of life in the absence of faith, right? Something like that? And hey, who took that crucifix down anyway? This is heavy stuff! I'm hooked! Keep going!")

Signs is the story of Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a former Episcopalian minister who has lost his religion after his wife's death in a car accident. Graham lives on a Pennsylvania farm with his two children and his hayseed brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). He spends a lot of time staring mutely into the cornfield at the end of his front yard. Its stalks are tall and lush and secretive. Rustling, densely ranked, they seem to be the sentinels of some great mystery, particularly when Graham -- investigating the appearance, one night, of a crop circle -- catches in his flashlight beam the lissome green leg of an alien visitor, extended La Cage aux Folles-style from between the cornstalks. Graham's dogs go bananas and his solemn little children grow potent with augury, tuning in to alien jabber on their baby alarm and getting "bad feelings." (Children with bad feelings are important to Shyamalan: Who can forget Haley Joel "I see dead people" Osment from The Sixth Sense? Small, pale faces pinched in foreboding, eyes meant for wonder growing dark with doom -- Shyamalan hits these notes reliably.) The behavior of the visitors -- forming scout parties, committing vandalism -- is identified as "probing" by a particularly excellent local Army recruitment officer, a man with the eyes of a conspiracy theorist and a mouth like a half-opened tin of anchovies.

The visitors are clearly hostile, sounding out weakness. Graham's whole cornfield, it turns out, is infested with alien invaders, clucking and chattering at one another as they prepare humanity's downfall. Merrill becomes interested in the news, taking the television into the closet with him so as not to alarm the children. A squadron of unidentified hovering lights has taken up position over Mexico City. Crop circles are appearing worldwide, like sudden planetary hair loss. Populations are panicking. "It's like War of the Worlds," breathes Merrill, in an oddly self-conscious line. (Imagine the James Bond of Moonraker turning to someone and saying, "It's like From Russia with Love!")

Shyamalan, good with dining-room tables and small, drably furnished rooms, is at sea when trying to capture the global scale of events. The television babbles away preposterously in Merrill's closet, with taut-voiced anchormen introducing spooky footage from "our affiliates in Brazil" and "our affiliates in Mexico." The Hess family, at any rate, is convinced; all four members take to their basement as the alien offensive begins. And after some rattling of doorknobs, one specimen finally appears in their living room, crouched, spiny, broccoli green, panting slightly as if overloaded with malevolence, a killer claw cocked over the head of a child. ... Am I spoiling things here? I don't think so. Because Signs aspires to be so much more than a film about conquest-hungry spacemen. Crop circles, for one thing, while usefully helping to orient incoming alien warships, are also a metaphor for the human condition, paths of destruction whose order and design only become visible when seen from above -- a God's eye view. After thrashing about in our existences, says Shyamalan, and putting our heavy feet down everywhere, we discover in the end that all this random weed trampling, this bestial flattening of the grasses, has been part of a pattern and a plan.

This is a nice notion, and I applaud it (clapping like a seal), but is the film any good? Signs is, actually, even more like a school play than Shyamalan's last two films (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable). It could be staged easily, with minimal adaptation, by some witty eighth-graders: The cast is tiny, there are no special effects to speak of (one alien suit would suffice) and, apart from a trip into town and to a neighbor's house, all the action is confined to the Hess household and the adjacent cornfield. In the strangely cloistered, almost prissy view it takes of intergalactic warfare, as well as in its ponderous religious overtones, Signs resembles something that might have been written by Max Fischer, the erratic prodigy at the heart of Wes Anderson's Rushmore.

In accordance with the precepts of The Screenwriter's Bible, each major character limps onscreen dragging his or her dead limb of a back-story (in the case of Merrill, a failed baseball career). And Gibson gives a real grandstanding, school-hero-type performance, cloaked in self-worship. I have no feeling at all for Gibson, for his compendiously handsome film-star face or his heroic, sturdy body, but Signs reveals something interesting about him: He can't do comedy. Shyamalan's writing can be genuinely funny -- as when the Hess children, fearing alien mind control, make themselves pointy little hats of tinfoil and sit on the couch like upside-down Hershey's Kisses -- but Gibson can't get there. When the moment cries out for a light touch, he mugs and twinkles and does heavy, embarrassing work with his eyebrows. Like a splendid drunk, he requires a certain ferocity in his surroundings: Magnificent, for instance, when daubed in blue paint at the head of a Scottish horde (Braveheart), he is a total liability in a confined domestic space.

Signs, it should be said, is highly enjoyable. Shyamalan can be somber, he can be delightful and, if his writing ever grows out of its childish earnestness, it might be a problem for him. There are many droningly suspenseful sequences of the sort that prompt wags in the audience to go "Boo!" at the almost-crucial moment, and a current of deep feeling runs beneath. When the two brothers, Merrill and Graham, finally face one another in fear and throaty honesty, I think -- no, I'm sure -- I shed a tear or two. And as the curtain came down I rose to my feet and thumped my (equally moved) neighbor on the back, crying, "Didn't they do well? Didn't they all do well?"