Photo: © Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

Director(s): M. Night Shyamalan

Writer(s): M. Night Shyamalan

Cast: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, Cherry Jones, M. Night Shyamalan and Patricia Kalember

Reviewed by: Ian Evans on

Release Date(s)

Aug 2, 2002 - Wide

In Signs, director M. Night Shyamalan takes a global situation, the possibility of alien life, and focuses it down to the level of one family.

Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, an Episcopalian priest who has turned away from the Church after the recent death of his wife. He lives on a farm with his two children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) and his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a failed minor-leaguer who held the home run record but also the strikeout crown.

When crop circles appear on his farm, Graham believes it to be the actions of local pranksters. Even when the evidence seems to point elsewhere, he remains steadfast in his earthbound beliefs, even though the people around him aren’t so sure. When crop circles and other phenomena begin to appear throughout the world, Hess and his family begin to wrestle with the fact that we may not be alone in this universe. Hess must come to terms with his own faith and fears in order to protect his family.

Shyamalan understands that it is not what you show, but what you don’t show, that creates the most amount of fear and suspense in an audience. He holds a shot just long enough for your brain to believe that something is going to happen and then takes it just past that point. His use of the score also gets the audience’s imaginations working overtime. So many suspense scores build to a point where the scare is timed to a musical crescendo, but Shyamalan will sometimes cut the score out completely. Stripped of its usual cinematic tour guide, the brain makes your body jump just that much higher when the payoff finally comes.

It is during these moments when your own imagination and fears run wild that Signs is at its most effective. The film’s conclusion ties up quite neatly, but the spiritual/emotional punchline that makes you think, “oh that’s what it all meant” is also a Shyamalan trait. The road to that conclusion is very entertaining and he even manages to slip some good comedy in.

Strong performances from the lead actors as well as Cherry Jones and Shyamalan himself make for an emotional thriller that’s a welcome relief from this summer’s computer-generated heroes.