|(This week, need to talk about M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, but we don't want to give anything away unnecessarily. We've studiously avoided the dreaded spoilers that always seem to creep into Shyamalan's reviews, so forgive us if we're sometimes a little vague.)
As a fellow reviewer has pointed out, M. Night Shyamalan has made a career of imbuing genre films with overt philosophical ponderings. The ghost story (The Sixth Sense), the superhero story (Unbreakable) and now the alien invasion story (Signs) are all used as backdrops for larger questions about fate, faith and the nature of existence. What's cool is that they're also highly effective genre films as well; for instance, The Sixth Sense alone had more genuine terror than both the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises put together.
Signs kicks the terror into an almost excruciatingly high gear. At least in The Sixth Sense, the ghosts were familiar and still quite human, and they turned out to mean well overall. The aliens in Signs are mysterious at best and are, by definition, completely lacking in humanity. We're in completely unknown territory here, and James Howard Newton's dissonant score only makes you jump even higher in your seat whenever another nasty scare comes up.
However, Signs isn't truly about aliens. It's about a minister's (played by Mel Gibson) loss of faith following the death of his wife. Mind you, when we say, "it's about loss of faith," we mean, "the script practically beats you over the head with it." Whereas a simple camera shot of a cross removed from a wall speaks volumes about a character's crisis, some of Signs' speechifying practically gave us a concussion. But even that isn't as bad as the flashbacks that accompany the film's action climax. We hate it when filmmakers obviously don't trust the audience enough to remember such important bits as the dying wife's last words. You don't need to yank us along to the plot-point feeding trough, M. Night; we can find our own way there.
As irritating as he can be (particularly in his insistence on a cameo in each movie), we can't help but be impressed at what a distinctive style Shyamalan has, particularly when it comes to his male actors. The Sixth Sense seemed to take delight in deflating action star Bruce Willis to a mere damaged mortal; even as an unaware superman in Unbreakable, Willis wore defeat like James Brown wears a cape. In Signs, Mel Gibson is reduced from the one-man army we've seen in most of his recent dramas to a weary, lost soul racked with doubt. And most of the time, as the former-Reverend Graham Hess, Gibson pulls it off beautifully.
Of course, he can't help but suffer in comparison to Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Graham's brother Merrill. Throughout the movie, the tension in Phoenix builds, even manifesting itself in some overtly comic moments. However, humor in Signs plays quite a different role than in the horror-movie stereotype: it doesn't dispel the terror. Yes, what happens to Phoenix's character is pretty sadistic toward the audience, but it's done really well.
Are you noticing a theme, by any chance? Audience sadism, cameos in his own movies, nerve-shredding music, nasty scares...sound like a certain portly British director to anyone out there? Shyamalan apparently wants or needs to be compared favorably or even neutrally to Alfred Hitchcock, but in this regard, he's doomed to fail. Like we've said, Shyamalan has enough of a style of his own that the "homages" to other films and other directors that pop up throughout Signs are not only unnecessary, but undercut the man's true ability. We'd like to this movie again without all the shout-outs to Hitchcock, The Blair Witch Project, War of the Worlds, Field of Dreams, etc.
Plus, we could happily go the rest of our lives without seeing M. Night in any more cameos. Talk about a spoiler.