August 12, 2002
The pressure on M. Night Shyamalan must be intense. As a virtual unknown, he wrote and directed The Sixth Sense, one of the biggest cinematic sensations of the past few years. Since then, Mr. Shyamalan has, I'm sure, worked hard to reproduce the success of The Sixth Sense. Unfortunately, his subsequent films, Unbreakable and Signs (which opened nationwide this past weekend), indicate that he may have shot his wad.
I had become very eager to see Signs. After my first viewing of the movie's preview (how long ago was that? maybe 2 months?), I thought it looked hokey, but subsequent previews gave me the impression that it was going to be a really suspenseful, scary film. I think, in the end, neither impression was wrong. I'm going to try to state here my opinion of the movie, while at the same time not reveal spoilers. Please note that if I mention any story or plot points from the first 10 minutes or so of the film, I do not consider these to be spoilers.
The story focuses on a minister-turned-farmer, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), and his family (his brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), his two young children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin)). From the outset, it is clear that a tragedy that has recently befallen them. When crop circles (which some believe indicate extraterrestrial activity) appear in Graham's cornfields, we wonder if it's a prank of some kind. Little by little, however, the Hesses and we learn that something more bizarre is going on. Signs takes the universal idea of the possibility of life on other planets, and explores it within the microcosm of this one rural family. It is a nice idea, but as we all know, nice ideas alone do not make good movies.
A few of my criticisms are relatively minor. For instance, Shyamalan makes little effort to explain what a crop circle is or go into the history of the mystery, which might cause some confusion (my wife was with me and she couldn't understand what the presence of the crop circles was supposed to indicate). Also, Gibson's character's clerical past is fuzzy. He has children and a recently-deceased wife, but is called "Father" and at one point is asked to hear a confession. I never did learn what denomination he was supposed to be, but I had the feeling it was one I'm not familiar with (do Episcopalians have confession?) or Shyamalan doesn't know what he's talking about.
Signs was pretty suspenseful, so I'm not sure why all the dialogue had to be delivered so slowly and seriously, as if everyone expected to be shot at any moment. It made the film drag. Gibson's performance was a mixed bag. He plays the widower very nicely, but he often said his lines like he was a straight man about to deliver a punch line.
I have only 2 big criticisms, but being big they significantly hampered my enjoyment of the film. The first is that in Shyamalan's efforts to limit the story to the experiences of this one family, he had to tell other parts of the story through cheesy exposition and television newscasts. Also, the way the family and the whole world seemed to respond to the main events later in the movie seemed to me very unrealistic.
Having revealed my criticisms, I will add that there was a lot of suspense and frightening moments. I was on the edge of my seat throughout the movie. There were also many humorous moments in the film, wry twists of dialogue, that sort of thing. It doesn't turn the final product into a must-see, but it would never turn up as fodder on Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
I think Shyamalan might be better off to work towards something more modest next time. I'm sure he's got another Sixth Sense in him; it may just take a little more time before he can successfully capture it on film.