Aliens and Angst 

*Signs (PG-13)
Buena Vista Pictures

Yes, we are all mesmerized by the mysterious and lyrical sound of director M. Night Shyamalan's name. Unfortunately, so is he. Shyamalan apparently feels the need to splash his name (eight-feet tall) and his face (in a supporting role) across the screen repeatedly in his films, causing little more than distraction and annoyance. That said, Signs is a worthy successor to his debut effort, Sixth Sense, and a significant improvement on his perplexing second film, Unbreakable.

The plot is simplicity itself: Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a former Episcopalian priest who lost his faith and turned in the collar when his wife was killed in a mindless automobile accident, is challenged to reconsider the extent and role of belief when enormous crop circles appear in the corn fields that surround his Bucks County, Pennsylvania farmhouse. Hess' beefy and dimwitted brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a former minor-league baseball player, lives in the shed out back and the two care for Bo and Morgan (Abigail Breslin and Rory Culkin), the defrocked Father's two preternaturally bright, adorable and trusting children.

When television broadcasts from across the world show similar crop circles and reveal space ships hovering in the night sky above major cities, the Hess family batten down the hatches and prepare for an extraterrestrial invasion of their quiet, isolated home. How everyone deals with the crisis, individually and collectively, comprises the heft and weight of the film -- a quiet, suspenseful and frequently thrilling romp through the chilling territory of the unknown.

Youngster Rory Culkin is most impressive as Morgan, an asthmatic waif whose mental clarity regarding the invasion, and what it might mean, guides the family's actions. Gibson delivers a refreshingly understated turn as the tired and beleaguered Graham, a man sleepwalking through life following a spiritual crisis, and Phoenix is sincere and effective as his loyal brother. Shyamalan's effectiveness directing children and creating realistic, homely family scenes is in evidence here. The presence of little Bo onscreen imbues the film with an aura of innocence, and all of the family's interactions feel genuine and essential.

Signs falls into some clumsy dialogue when it tries to be philosophical and there are some downright cornpone interactions involving a well-meaning rural sheriff played by Cherry Jones, but altogether, this is a thrilling thriller that marks Shyamalan's growing influence as a Hollywood filmmaker who honors his predecessors (notably Hitchcock and Spielberg) while making a unique mark of his own.

-- Kathryn Eastburn


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