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Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix are terribly vexed.

© 2002, Touchstone
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"The Sixth Sense" was a tale of acceptance wrapped up in a ghost story. "Unbreakable" was a story about destiny stuffed inside a comic book origin yarn. Director M. Night Shyamalan's new film is "Signs" (IMDb listing) and it's a story about questioning faith within an overall plot featuring a full-out alien invasion. If you've seen "Sixth Sense" or "Unbreakable," well, then "Signs" will come as no surprise. Shyamalan is up to his old tricks of misdirection and subtle audience condescension. You'll come out wishing the director would just once make good on his initial storyline promises for a change.

Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a former Episcopalian priest who, due to the sudden death of his wife, has lost faith in his God and all other forces out in the universe. Living a solemn life in rural Pennsylvania with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), his son Morgan (Rory Culkin, God willing, the last of the Culkin dynasty), and daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin), the family's world is turned upside down with the appearance of extraterrestrial crop circles in their corn field. Believing it to be a rather sophisticated hoax, Graham ignores the warning signs. But soon enough, more circles begin to appear around the globe, leading to mysterious lights in the sky, and finally to visitors making noises in the dark.

Now here's a director with absolute success, a huge following, and the world's ear every time he makes a picture, but has there ever been a filmmaker in recent history who has left so many people divided over his films? M. Night Shyamalan has a vision. A majestic, immense vision that only he seems to fully understand. The trick is that he can make you feel inferior if you don't "get" it. "Signs" plays out like that horrible Christmas prank when someone wheels out a strikingly wrapped refrigerator box, and after hours of digging through gift wrap and tissue you find only a chocolate bar at the very bottom. "Signs" is skillfully made, well acted, and scored with gusto by Shyamalan regular James Newton Howard. It's also sewn together so tightly with tension and suspense that other filmmakers should take notes. But the pieces don't fit together as the story demands, with characters and motivations taking a back seat to whatever Shyamalan has in mind at that very moment. This type of ego-centric direction (think David Lynch on a bad day) makes for an imaginative movie, but not a terribly gripping one.

It's the same type of direction that exterminated "Unbreakable" for me, though thankfully Shyamalan has cut short his long-take fetish for "Signs." A film with unlimited potential, the spine of "Unbreakable" was snapped by Shyamalan when, in place of taking the film to the natural plateaus it had spent the first two hours establishing, Shyamalan decided to shake up the sno-globe at the last minute just to please himself. Endings don't get much worse than the one in "Unbreakable," and "Signs" feels like one long "Unbreakable" climax. "Signs" is so many things: an alien invasion flick, a quiet study on faith, a horror film, a heartbreaking tale of loss, a science fiction thriller...take your pick. Shyamalan tries to pack it all into one film, and when it comes time to choose a genre or theme to end the film with, he unfortunately picks them all. The alien invasion plot is actually the main thrust of the film, but it's tossed aside as Graham and the gang spend all of their time in the basement of their house. Not that I needed "Independence Day" all over again, but something more than a middle finger to this subplot would've gone a lot further than just the occasional radio/TV host explaining what the aliens are up to.

What makes "Signs" all the more frustrating is that I was with it heart and hand for the first two acts. Shyamalan can be counted on for great suspense set pieces, and, in "Signs," he seldom disappoints when it comes to solid scares. He even shrewdly casts himself in the small, but crucial role of the man who ended Mrs. Graham's life, and now just happens to have caught an alien in his pantry. The exchange between Graham and this man, with that corker of coda to give it a snap, is a glimpse of what "Signs" might have been had Shyamalan let his extraterrestrial movie head down not necessarily familiar paths, but ones that would lead to audience satisfaction. "Signs" is far too in love with its own themes of redemption to bother with the aliens that Shyamalan has so painstakingly set up.

It's tough to not be bitter over "Signs," especially when, after "Unbreakable," I kind of saw this coming. "Signs" is a distinctive and an often stimulating picture, but hardly one where you get your money's worth in the end. I look forward to a day when M. Night Shyamalan will stop believing his own press and just make a film that accomplishes each one of its goals from start to finish.

Filmfodder Grade: C

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