Signs (12)

In the tradition of his creepy and eerie previous pictures director M. Night (The Sixth Sense; Unbreakable) Shyamalan has turned the theme of alien invasions on its head and created the flipside of Independence Day.

When crop circles appear in an American farmer’s fields, and then begin appearing all over the world, thoughts immediately turn to a mammoth global hoax. But who or what is responsible for the strange noises outside at night? Is it just a trick, or is it something far more sinister…?

For Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a minister turned farmer whose faith has taken a battering following the unexpected death of his wife, such dramas are the last thing he needs when attempting to keep his family together

But Graham, his two kids and younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) find themselves inextricably drawn into the crop circles phenomenon as news reports reveal hundreds more.

By turns dismissing the circles while becoming glued to the TV set, Graham, Merrill and the children slowly come to realise that something extraterrestrial may well have descended on their quiet little town. And, unlike E.T., these lot aren’t friendly…

For anyone with even a modicum of interest in current affairs the strange saga of the crop circles has all the makings of a magnificent chiller. In Shyamalan’s hands it slips slightly towards the pedestrian in its mid section but still manages to evoke more than a feel of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds – all seen from within the confines of a clapboard farmhouse.

Working on the proviso that ‘less is more’ Shyamalan cranks up the tension to deliver a first-rate thriller where the power of suggestion easily outweighs overt shockability.

Hence a barking dog provides one of the movie’s first real jumps, while the appearance of a hand under a door, watched by an incredulous, terrified Gibson, offers another. It’s all reminiscent of those great ‘B’ movies of yore, but with a modern sensibility and style.

Gibson is excellent as the minister who has lost his faith, eschewing his traditional strong-arm heroics to play a modest, unassuming man whose idea of profanity is to run from the house shouting “I am insane with anger!” as a ploy to frighten away midnight intruders.

Phoenix, rapidly becoming one of the best young American actors to watch, also scores highly as the damaged sibling who is the first to believe the kids’ talk of aliens and lights in the sky. The two children, Rory Culkin (brother of Macaulay) and Abigail Breslin, are both born scene-stealers and effortlessly hold their own against the adults.

After the runaway success of The Sixth Sense Shyamalan was always going to be up against it with his successors. Unbreakable was perhaps too obscure in its roots to reach a mainstream audience but he has somewhat redressed the balance with Signs – an intelligent, frightening and original take on an unusual period of contemporary history where the thrust of the action remains unseen save for the experiences of four protagonists.

Shyamalan himself pops up in a brief cameo and lends the film one of its best lines, casually informing Gibson that he’s ‘caught one’ in the closet of his home, and not to venture inside.

Now, with an invitation like that, what would you do…?

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