Don't let M. Night Shyamalan's success fool you. Just because "The Sixth Sense" is the 10th-highest-grossing film of all time, don't think of him as a writer-director of blockbusters. It's just not so.
Shyamalan's latest film, the Mel Gibson-starring "Signs," confirms what's been hidden in plain sight: He is at heart a maker of quirky, individualistic, almost handmade supernatural films he writes, directs, produces and even casts himself in.
The success of "Sixth Sense" and to a lesser degree "Unbreakable" notwithstanding, Shyamalan actually has more in common with low-budget horror artist Larry Fessenden ("Habit," "Wendigo") than someone who might be working for producer Jerry Bruckheimer. He uses big stars because they're available, but his passion is for putting his own spin on traditional, even old-fashioned material.
Shyamalan's great gift is the creation of atmosphere, the conjuring of spooky, unseen menace. When he gets around to doing this in "Signs," all is well, but it's a tossup as to whether the film offers enough of a payoff considering how long it takes to get where it's going.
Also, Shyamalan has other things on his mind this time around, some better executed than others.
There's a strain of quirky, laconic humor here that is unexpected but effective. Less successful is the film's main theme, the power and even the necessity of faith. "Signs" is finally a B picture at heart, and whatever heartfelt messages the Bs convey is never what's memorable about them.
The key plot element in "Signs" is the phenomenon known as crop circles, geometric patterns made in farmers' fields that look impressive enough to lead some people to think they were made by aliens (though an article in the current Scientific America details how easily mere humans can manage the deed).
One such victimized farmer is Graham Hess (Gibson), who wakes up one morning on his Bucks County acreage 45 miles from Philadelphia to find a circle in his cornfields. (In reality, circles appear not in corn but rather wheat, oats or barley, but Shyamalan liked the maze-like look only cornfields provide.)
Hess' young children, 10-year-old Morgan ("You Can Count on Me's" Rory Culkin) and 5-year-old Bo (a debuting Abigail Breslin) think God did it. Hess' younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and Hess himself think it was the work of rowdy locals Lionel Prichard and the Wolfington brothers. And local peace officer Caroline Paski (Cherry Jones) frankly doesn't know what to think.
As the investigation continues, we learn more about the Hess family. Graham Hess, it turns out, is a recent widower who was so shattered by the accidental death of his wife that he left the Episcopal priesthood and returned to civilian life. And brother Merrill has had crises of belief of his own: A powerful minor league baseball player, he saw his prospects come undone when the records he set included one for strikeouts as well as one for home runs.
Though his part doesn't sound that exciting, Gibson does some of his best acting as the disaffected Hess, balancing the presence of a paterfamilias with the doubts of a damaged soul trying to figure out what is happening with the world.
While the adults in "Signs" are pursuing rational leads, the kids have ideas of their own. The wonderfully earnest Morgan purchases a book on UFOs and alien invasions and somberly reads it as if it was a U.S. government manual. In one of the film's funnier conceits, he makes himself a helmet out of tinfoil to prevent aliens from reading his mind.
Although this kind of droll humor, which makes us wonder whether the end of the world might well come as farce, is entertaining, it's not enough to distract us during the too-long time it takes for "Signs" to show and tell us what is causing these circles. (Not that anyone will have much doubt, even without the film's referencing of H.G. Wells' classic "War of the Worlds.")
Once its actual action kicks in, "Signs" is on stronger ground, holding our attention so well there's no time to think about things in the plot that don't make a whole lot of sense. It's also true that the bromides about faith the film thinks are profound don't end up playing that way. Still, as they used to say in the 1950s sci-fi movies, "Signs" is a tribute to Shyamalan's gifts, which are such that we'll keep watching the skies for his next project.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for some frightening moments. Times guidelines: Scare moments are of the traditional variety.
Mel Gibson...Graham Hess
Joaquin Phoenix...Merrill Hess
Rory Culkin...Morgan Hess
Abigail Breslin...Bo Hess
Cherry Jones...Officer Paski
M. Night Shyamalan...Ray Reddy
Released by Touchstone Pictures. Director M. Night Shyamalan. Producers Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer. Executive producer Kathleen Kennedy. Screenplay M. Night Shyamalan. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. Editor Barbara Tulliver. Costumes Ann Roth. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Larry Fulton. Art director Keith P. Cunningham. Set decorator Douglas Mowat. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
In general release.