M. Night Shyamalan / USA / 2002
Former priest Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) tends his shattered family in a farm near Philadelphia, bereft of faith after his wife's senseless death. As crop circles start to appear worldwide with alarming speed, the scene is set for alien invasion. Hess confronts his demons in this low key domestic adaptation of War of the Worlds.
Shyamalan, a director who can wring tension from a catatonic sloth, finally gives his protagonists physical antagonists of the bruising kind (in addition to themselves) diverting pleasingly from the narrative feints of his previous work. In the aftermath of a publicity campaign clearly planned by alien invaders we are left with this relic of the trailer that improves on the wholesale pointlessness of Unbreakable but now includes a disarming imbalance of humour. At times of stress, danger can indeed become an absurd surreal joke heightened by the thrill of imminent expiration. Shyamalan successfully suffocates his trademark atmosphere with asthmatic mirth.
Signs proliferate from the megalithic crop circles to the various character ticks which will protect their owners in the obsessive compulsive style climax. Hess himself divides interpretation between those with whom such signs reinforce belief or human isolation. Whilst crop circles remain as much an enigma as the fleeting aliens, all the other signs have the kind of relevance normally associated with over drafted scripts. In the red echo of paranoid hysterics, the faceless enemy has a secret weakness. Just like yesteryears Martians or Triffids these interlopers are vulnerable to a terran staple which we all take for granted; in this case water. Where else is this noticed but in the parched middle east. This sly sign is one the movies more esoteric, addressing the last event that gave cable subscribers just one channel for the price of many; 9/11. The invaders appear reasonably real, strengthened by the television reportage the family continually watch. Shyamalan is wise to localise and personalise this invasion, symbolising the world as a farmers homestead. The aliens are genuinely inscrutable, co-ordinating their attack from 'somewhere else' yet failing to cope with human unity, faith and water.
With the exception of Rory Culkin's tabloid reading infant savant, the acting in Signs is sufficient to facilitate the sublimation of the Hess family into one slow pulsating hypertensive twitch. Abigal Breslin impresses as the small daughter worth protecting firmly in the mole of the ET style Drew Barrymore. Gibson's taut humour harks back to the numerous twitchy action comedy heroes he's played in the past making Shyamalan's task no easier. His semi-orgasmic respiratory symbiosis with the asthmatic Culkin delicately induces phlegmatic laughter in place of what one feels should be something else. Much like the rest of the film.