Has anyone seen the "real" M. Night Shyamalan lately? The genius who was responsible for The Sixth Sense? Where has he wandered and will he ever return to the writing and directing form we know so well? As King Monghut (Yul Brynner) in The King and I would have said, "is a mystery" that I am loathe to solve.
This reviewer has come away from his latest creation, Signs, and is wondering just what Mr. Shyamalan had on his mind as he envisioned and wrote it. He has produced, for all intents and purposes, two totally different sets of subject matter that are bucking the yoke that tries mightily to bind them, and the results are uneven and forced.
Mel Gibson is Graham Hess, who until six months ago, was an ordained minister, married and the father of a young son and daughter. Tragically, his entire world is turned upside down when a young man (M. Night Shyamalan) falls asleep at the wheel of his car one night and crashes into a truck. The unlikely victim in this collision was not either driver, but Hess's wife, Colleen (Patricia Kalember) who had been taking a walk down the dark country road before dinner and is caught between the two vehicles, "pinned." We are shown throughout the film, at emotional times of trouble, flashbacks of that terrible night and the repercussions that resulted. As a result of this accident, Hess leaves the constrictions of his vocation and questions his faith with unceasing volatility, until a series of crop "signs" are discovered on his property.
His young brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), has moved in with the family to help keep the farm, hearth and kin afloat as it is ferried down the River Styx and to the open arms of aliens who will make up the "second" story of this film. Merrill had a promising career as a minor league baseball player, but had the unfortunate habit of hitting every ball with such force and abandon that he literally played himself out a job and into the record books as possessing, among other things, the record for most strikeouts. As a result, he has never realized his full potential and is now employed at a gas station.
Morgan and Bo Hess (played respectively by Abigail Breslin and Rory Culkin) are strange, out of sort children. Morgan has the "tic" of always assuming that there is a problem with any water that she drinks and as a result, the house is littered with glass upon glass that will present an encouraging turn of events as the film progresses (think of visions of The Wizard of Oz). Bo, as played by the younger brother of Macauley Culkin, is that child actor, "flavour of the month" that seems to permeate films today. He is old beyond his years and possesses the wisdom of the ages, or so we would be led to believe. His Achilles Heel is to suffer from asthma, and that too, will play a prominent part in the film.
What is puzzling about this film is that Shyamalan can't make up his mind precisely what he wants to present to the viewer. Is it a story about feeling that God has abandoned a true believer in his hour of true need, or, is this a story about aliens and the wrath that they want to incur? Either story could have been built upon, but as separate units; rather like a "two for two" sale. Is the audience supposed to be mesmerized by a story that seems to borrow occasionally from George Pal's 1953 classic, The War of the Worlds or be stupefied by the desertion of Hess from his faith? It's extremely hard to fathom just how this family, this dysfunctional foursome, manage to hold it all together in the face of the alien invasion. Phoenix's one display of true emotion was garnered when he watched a news report on television of a birthday party video from Brazil on national news, that showed an alien in all his consummate and unwelcome glory. The senior Hess's make the decision to barricade themselves in their home and while this is fine and reasonable up to a point, at what juncture were they supposed to question their supplies, food, escape routes, or most importantly, making real contact with others in their community? Gibson does make an unexpected visit to Ray Reddy (Shyamalan), after receiving an aborted call, and discovers that while Reddy is "ready" to leave the area, he has left a "caller" locked in the kitchen pantry for Gibson to investigate, as we know he will. What is so incredible in this story, though, is the suggestion presented that the aliens, with all their technological wizardry, are susceptible to a very common thing here on Earth (a la "The War of the Worlds). One wonders if H. G. Wells (author of The War of the Worlds) were alive today, along with Barre Lyndon (writer for the film of the same name), could they sue for infringement?
The special effects of Signs are of the maniacal, crazed and evil variety - translation: the aliens. They are a decided change from the charmers of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind who sought to be our friends. As in The War of the Worlds, Shymalan's are up to no good. Verbalizations by his aliens are akin to those as displayed in John McTiernan's 1987 film Predator, and are of the clicking variety (another liberal "borrowing"), and their body makeup is as we have always taught it would be - green, but these visitors are NOT little.
The one saving grace for Signs is the musical score by James Newton Howard. The four opening notes of the film reminded this reviewer of the opening notes from "Danse Macbre" by Saint Saens, and just as eerie. Howard has been in tandem with Shyamalan's films since the inception of The Sixth Sense and parlayed his success to Unbreakable and now Signs. It puts one in mind of the long association that Bernard Herrmann had with Alfred Hitchcock and one wonders if Howard will continue in the same vein as his esteemed colleague. Howard's score is ripe with characterizations and his three note motif is played with a variety of success throughout. Of course, some adoption has also come via Herrmann's most famous score for Hitchcock's "Psycho," with piercing violins, and while this is not totally a bad thing in and of itself, it cheapens an otherwise fantastic rendering by him.
Shyamalan is missing in action, searching for that previous success that made his film The Sixth Sense, a household name and the sentence, "I see dead people" a catch phrase that still reverberates to this day. "There's a monster outside my bedroom door. Can I have a glass of water?", uttered by Bo, simply doesn't convey the same spine tingling scariness as that uttered by Haley Joel Osment. Perhaps Shyamalan needs to back away from the business of horror for a while and concentrate all of his energies on building a story that truly draws his audience into another world. Signs is a bastardized pretender to the throne and as Shakespeare would have said, it's "much ado about nothing."
Indian-born, American-raised writer and director, whose forte is taking cliched fantasy stories and reinventing them with low-key treatment, usually with a child at the heart of them. After gentle comedy Wide Awake, he hit the big time with supernatural drama The Sixth Sense. Superhero tale Unbreakable was also successful, as was the religious alien invasion parable Signs. Shyamalan's mystery drama The Village was seen as ploughing the same furrow for too long by some, and his fantasies Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth (which he didn't conceive the plot for) were met with near-universal derision. On a lower budget, he made The Visit, which was cautiously received as a partial return to form, and Split, which was his biggest hit in some time, along with its sequel Glass, a thoughtful if eccentric take on superheroes. He also co-wrote Stuart Little.