Cinema Signal:

The Science & Mysticism of Crop Circles

. "Signs"

The supernatural is dangerous territory for movie fiction, and it's to writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's credit that he found so successful a way to suggest a world of ghosts in his 1999 hit, "Sixth Sense". The device he used to achieve that was a clever twist on what was real and what wasn't, causing those realms to interact in a surprising, unpredictable way and producing a satisfying eerieness in the third act. That satisfaction comes from plot logic, the reasonable resolution of what's been promised by the elements presented previously. Not only doesn't he match that outcome this time outside the sphere of reality, the picture gets bogged down in repetition, over-elongation of "The Mystery" and not a little sermonizing. This is a short story stretched to feature-length.

Not that he doesn't have a handle on creating paranormal atmosphere and mood (much credit to music director James Newton Howard) and Shyamalan's first act utilizes all those skills as he sets up the characters, the otherworldly situation and the tensions among the humans.

Ex-priest, corn farmer Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) rushes out to his field in Bucks County (PA) and finds one of those mystifying circular crop designs. His kids Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin) as well as bother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and family dogs are quickly enveloped in the discovery and become terrified by some strange developments that seem to be connected. One of the family dogs turns vicious after barking at an invisible presence and seeming to become possessed -- one way to suggest the appearance of a threatening, supernatural power.

At first, Hess, who lost his faith in God as a result of his wife's death six months ago, looks for evidence that the whole thing is a hoax. It's no surprise that he doesn't find any, since this is simply a writer's device to convince us that it isn't one. By Hess exploring "all" the possibilities, Shyamalan would have the doubters in the audience buy into the notion that the crop designs are the work of an alien intelligence that has designs on us! We are to overlook the real life conclusion that no conclusion about them has ever been reached.

But, now, we reach the second act, and the task is to stretch out the mystery in this disingenuous attempt to reveal it in the last act. But, I kept asking myself, is he really going to suggest aliens? Shades of Mulder and Skully! Are we going to get to see these creatures? Will they have big eyes and little chin? Are they going to harm the Hess family and the rest of us humans? Shyamalan must be thinking that there's nothing like the indefinite and unexplained to seduce an audience, but the appeal is to the young and uncritical. The phenomenon allows him to make fantasy hay out of one of reality's open ended questions. And, he goes for it: lock, stock and spaceship!

The problem is that off-screen bumps in the night, in order to provide auditory confirmation of the characters' fears, is a device out of 1940s horror flicks. In today's level of expectation with movie effects, such tricks leave us incomplete, robbed, a promise withheld, a B movie incredibility, a lack of story satisfaction. Or, so you would think if you pay no attention to the big opening this film has had.

Shyamalan's love of kids and family bonds are certainly high in his consciousness here, a thread that runs through all his work. While his casting of Gibson and Phoenix can be questioned, his casting of Rory Culkin and little Abigail Breslin are on the mark, with Breslin nearly stealing the show. Because of her age, she seems the least caught up in the exaggerated fears of her elders, which strikes us as the more honest performance.

Shyamalan casts himself as Hess's neighbor Ray Reddy who is on suicide's edge because it was he who caused Hess' wife's death and he's ridden by guilt -- a far bigger part than the cameos he's given himself in previous films.

Invisible nocturnal appearances, unexplainable dog madness, loud off-screen sounds, eerie, suggestible music, breathless dialogue, these are B-movie techniques; but Shyamalan's cleverness is in combining what crop circles suggest in terms of paranormal phenomena with a priest who has lost his faith and may, through an encounter of this kind, find it again. You can see the promise this has for the world in which dimensions are skewed and, for a minute there, you might be convinced.

Which is not to say it won't work in its entirety for those who are predisposed to the supernatural to begin with, or love any suggestion of the paranormal, threadbare and unconvincing though it may be. Who wants to question a myth acquiring tangibility? That there are vast numbers of such folks is borne out by the hordes this film has lured to the boxoffice in its first two weeks. But, rather than compare Shyamalan to Spielberg, as several receipts-struck reviewers have done, he is better compared with "The X-Files'" Chris Carter who has exhausted the alien designs on our planet syndrome week after week on the TV series.

One wonders: what's next on Shyamalan's agenda? Life on meteors? Whatever it may be, one hopes he gets back to the level of creativity that made "The Sixth Sense" such a smashing success. Maybe I feel let down because I'd appreciate someone presenting a halfway credible explanation for the crop circles and this does nothing more than to drain away some of their fascination in a commercially successful maneuver to exploit.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Mel Gibson and kids, looking for signs

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