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It's back to the '50s in "Signs," M. Night Shyamalan's odd, semi-comic science-fiction tale centering on a weirdly sculptured cornfield in Bucks County, Pa., and a lapsed reverend played in shifting moods by Mel Gibson.
Recalling "The War of the Worlds" (mentioned by one of the characters) and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," this portrait of an embattled family also increasingly resembles a cult film from the director's home state of Pennsylvania, "Night of the Living Dead."
The setup of Shyamalan's screenplay, in which Gibson's Graham Hess discovers that the stalks in the field next to his tall, gray house have been methodically flattened, creates an immediate tension, built by Tak Fujimoto's atmospheric photography and intensified through the jittery, pounding, abstract scoring by James Newton Howard. The sequence that follows Gibson into the field where he finds the bent stalks proves an especially gripping introduction to the mystery, as the camera suddenly cranes up to show a beautiful, geometric design.
Soon it becomes clear that Hess, who has renounced the church, has slipped into a desperate mental state after the sudden, freakish death of his adored wife, Colleen. His younger brother, Merrill, a none-too-brainy slugger, played by a low-key, rather lost Joaquin Phoenix, has come back to live at the family farm to help with the two kids.
It takes a while for the Hesses to discover why their corn has been molested. But before long, similar "signs" are cropping up all over the globe, especially in India, the birthplace of the director-writer. Then brightly lighted ships dot the skies over Mexico City, prompting Merrill to invoke the H.G. Wells tale, which terrified America when broadcast by Orson Welles.
What begins as an engrossing mystery based on inexplicable "crop-circle formations," which number in the thousands, soon becomes a rather old-fashioned alien-invader chronicle of the sort that flourished in the Eisenhower years, with their fear of Russians. But because of its small scale, "Signs" comes closer to Don Siegel's "Body Snatchers" than to George Pal's revision of Wells' seminal "War."
Shyamalan has made a family drama, with only one significant outsider character, a no-nonsense, rather aunt-like sheriff, Caroline Paski, heartily played by Broadway diva Cherry Jones. Mostly the focus is on Graham, Merrill and the two kids, Rory Culkin's asthmatic, curious, bright Morgan and Abigail Breslin's saucer-eyed, adorable, superstitious Bo. Early on, the father and uncle spot an intruder atop their house, a gray wraith, a Mothman without wings. Later, the spooked Graham, exploring the rustling cornfield, spots a grayish leg of a disappearing visitor.
Morgan obtains a book about interlopers from space. Soon the kids, later gullible Merrill, take to wearing tin-foil caps to hide their thoughts from the aliens. Then TV broadcasts fill the Hesses with dread. After the family votes not to leave the house, Graham orders that the doors and windows be boarded up, and the Hess saga turns into a Disney version of George A. Romero's fabled "Night of the Living Dead," filmed in Pittsburgh in the late '60s.
The climax of the film uses a device employed earlier this year in an oddly similar shocker, "Panic Room," in which Jodie Foster finds herself locked into her castle keep without her daughter's medication. Here, in a taut and upsetting sequence, Culkin's Morgan begins to slip into a coma when deprived of his inhaler. Gibson, who again plays a man driven to the brink by tragedy (as in both "Mad Max" and "Lethal Weapon," for example), gives a gripping performance as a former man of God now turned raging apostate, though sometimes he seems appropriately befuddled.
At key moments, Shyamalan cuts to the moment of shock for the former preacher, who now hates to be called Father. These show the bewilderment of a man of the cloth suddenly hit by an act of fate that tears his life and faith apart. But the Father retains his charity. - even toward the driver who killed his wife, played by the writer-director in a good-sized, if bizarre cameo.
Shyamalan, who displayed his power with children with Haley Joel Osment in "The Sixth Sense," draws nearly as fine a performance from Culkin. Also impressive is the pairing of Gibson and Phoenix, who behave like brothers and even look oddly alike in two shots.
True to his two earlier mainstream features - the other was the tricky but fascinating "Unbreakable" - Shyamalan delivers a piercing finish, capped by a fascinating ambiguity. But as it moves from observable phenomena to spacy suppositions, "Signs" sometimes loses its way, in strange changes of tone, and in a monster that resembles the devil imagined by Arthur C. Clarke in "Childhood's End." Is "Signs" a testing of a lapsed Christian father by a benign if dangerous satanic figure? That is the most positive interpretation of a curiously uneven spiritual fantasy.