Principal Cast : Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, Cherry Jones, M Night Shyamalan, Patricia Kalember, Ted Sutton, Merritt Wever, Lanny Flaherty, Marion McCorry, Michael Showalter, Clifford David.
Synopsis: A widowed former reverend living with his children and brother on a Pennsylvania farm finds mysterious crop circles in their fields, which suggests something more frightening to come.
Take one grieving man of faith, his two young children, and his kooky younger brother, stick them in a farmhouse in the middle of cornfields and throw an alien invasion at them, and what do you get? You get Signs, M Night Shyamalan’s follow up to The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, starring Mel Gibson (before he went completely nuts), Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin, a film that both truly terrifies and completely befuddles, proving that while The Sixth Sense wasn’t a fluke, the director’s stock-in-trade “twist” endings aren’t always as strong as the film for which he’s best known. Make no mistake: Signs is a very good, hugely enjoyable dramatic sci-fi thriller in a very similar vein to Sixth Sense, inasmuch as it does a lot more of leaving things to your imagination than showing you, and is led by a quartet of quite excellent performances from the central cast.
Gibson plays Graham Hess, a former priest who is grieving the sudden and tragic passing of his wife the year prior, who lives on his corn farm with brother, baseball loving Merrill (Phoenix), son Morgan (Culkin) and daughter Bo (Breslin). After witnessing weird formations in his cornfields, Graham and his family are stunned to learn that Earth is being visited by aliens, and those aliens are not around with good intentions. Isolated and largely powerless, the quartet barricade themselves in their home and hope the invasion will pass them by, but as the night wears on their predicament becomes more dire. Shyamalan once more delivers a powerful setup and premise – Gibson’s grief is palpable throughout the film as he mourns his wife’s passing, and this plays into the thudding sense of fear permeating the more fictionalised aspects of the film. The director also ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable degrees, keeping his aliens hidden for the majority of the film except in key crucial moments, so there’s a lot of powerful heavy lifting achieved by our imaginations as we watch, wondering what monstrous form the aliens will take. All of the performances are excellent, Gibson and Phoenix in particular, but even the child actors offer realism and believability to their turns that enhance an otherwise terrifying and skin-prickling premise.
Sadly, this is the point at which Shyamalan’s inherent weakness as a director starts to show itself: he’s excellent (better than most, in fact) at setting up unique and intriguing ideas that lure in audiences wanting to unwrap the mystery, but his endings tend to lose me. Signs isn’t awful, and compared to most other films it’s actually pretty terrifying – but the finale of the film is laughable due to some pretty terrible visual effects. The alien design is a riff on the “Grey man” motif from Area 51 but made up to be a lot more scary, but the overall effect is diluted by low-rent visual effects for the aliens and that undercuts a lot of the tension. Plus, the MacGuffin the aliens are allergic to, very much in a War of The Worlds kinda way, is really dumb – given the aliens obviously possess some considerable tech, you’re telling me they couldn’t determine the quantity of the substance that kills them dominates our planet? Seriously? Okay, so the ending is pretty silly but Signs is still a vastly effective, thoroughly engaging alien invasion thriller that maintains is visceral chills for the entire duration. The script is excellent, the performances all rock solid, and Shyamalan’s spooky direction mesmerising in almost every sense. Thoroughly recommended.