Signs marks the third venture into the territory of the supernatural for M. Night Shyamalan. It falls somewhere in between his previous two films, the blockbuster The Sixth Sense and the more introspective Unbreakable. What is clear is that Shyamalan is a master at creating mood and tension. Signs is notable for its mix of looming dread and a surprisingly sublime sense of humor. He takes the audience on a steady march toward the end, building up drama, and then lessening some tension with humor. Then he begins again, ratcheting up the tension before relenting again. This time around, crop circles are the main focus of his movie. All of a sudden, they begin appearing across the globe in large numbers, including in a cornfield in rural Pennsylvania.

The farm in question belongs to Graham Hess (Mel Gibson, We Were Soldiers, What Women Want). Hess used to be the pastor of the local Episcopal Church, but left after the death of his wife shook his faith. He lives with his son Morgan (Rory Culkin, You Can Count on Me, Richie Rich), daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin) and brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix, Quills, Gladiator). Merrill is a disgraced former minor league baseball player, who decided to live with Morgan to try to put his life back together. Part of what makes Signs good is that Shyamalan focuses so intently on his characters. He juxtaposes an intimate story about people trying to rebuild their lives with an epic one about a possible alien invasion. Throughout Signs, Shyamalan always goes back to Hess, and his crisis of faith. Hess refuses to believe that the circles are anything but hoaxes, despite the increasing evidence that says otherwise. Everything that will happen to this family has some effect on Hess, and will either help him regain his faith or drive him further away.

This duality also extends to other elements of Signs. The crop circles are appearing all over the world, but the movie focuses on the Hess household. The vast majority of Signs takes place within their house, driving the focus to a minute level. As the movie progresses, events become increasingly global, and Shyamalan focuses even more intently on the family, by having people hide in closets, board up rooms and other such things to generate a claustrophobic feeling. . Gibson and Phoenix both give restrained, thoughtful performances, usually out of character for both actors (especially Phoenix). Culkin and Breslin are good for child actors, maintaining a sense of subdued fear. Much of the main purpose of the kids, especially Culkin, is to present the humor in Signs, but Shyamalan (who again casts himself in the film) never goes overboard.

'Restraint' seems to be the main theme Shyamalan is attempting to achieve. He holds back revealing what is causing the circles (it's really no secret) and after he does he still keeps things ambiguous. His directing style here asks for less, and he is just as happy to film the actors reactions to things, forcing the viewer to imagine what Gibson or Phoenix may be looking at. Shyamalan keeps his viewer attentive by doling out small amounts of information at a time. He fully develops his characters, but reveals them a little at a time, in a manner that feels natural and not forced, all the way to the end of the movie. Like his other two movies, he is able to bring everything together in a worthwhile manner at the conclusion. If anything, Shyamalan paces his film so much that it drags at some points, and could probably use a little judicious editing. What Shyamalan also manages to do is hide the fact that Signs is really a classic sci-fi movie, masquerading as a human drama. Is it cheating? Maybe, but he makes the film so enjoyable that in the end, it doesn't really matter.

Haro Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 47 minutes, Rated PG-13 for some frightening moments.

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