Signs: a hucksterish religious parable.

Reviews of the latest films.
Aug. 2 2002 1:30 PM

The Corn Is Flat

Signs is a hucksterish religious parable; Full Frontal is one big muddy mistake.

Close encounters of the crop kind in Signs
Close encounters of the crop kind in Signs 

Sci-fi invasion epics often come swaddled in religion, with epilogues crediting God for sending everything from microscopic germs to atomic bombs to vanquish the alien threat. But I can't think of another that wears its faith as showily as M. Night Shyamalan's scary/sappy Signs (Touchstone), which seems destined to be a monster hit—to strike a soothing chord in an especially anxious time. The title is a double-entendre. The movie takes off from the appearance of giant crop circles (two or three rings joined by a straight line, like bathroom-door sex symbols for the polymorphously peverse), one of which turns up in the Pennsylvania cornfield of the ex-minister protagonist, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson). These signs are obviously the work of extraterrestrials—but of what stripe? Beatific or mean? Close Encounters of the Third Kind  (1977) or Independence Day (1996)? Have they come to heal humankind or to harvest it?

Stop reading if you want to be surprised. Because the truth is that for all the picture's B-movie shocks, its aliens are a red herring. The signs that interest Shyamalan are the ones from an even higher source—the Almighty, whose existence was rejected by the hero after his wife was killed six months earlier in a "freak" road accident. (I put "freak" in quotation marks because the matter of coincidence is central to the film.) Graham left the ministry when his wife died: He stopped being a "Father" and he stopped being a father. Shyamalan asks: When will he realize that his faith is the only thing that can save his kids from the horror of a universe without God—here expressed as a planet teeming with blue-green Mummenschanz men who scamper and click and expel poison gas?

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It would be laughable, except it's often nerve-jangling: Shyamalan has evolved into a very crafty filmmaker. It used to be that a director could get past your defenses by doing things faster and with more technical bravura. But in an age defined by frenetic, music-video-style montage, the Shyamster gets under your skin with scenes that are emphatically—almost hysterically—slow. The actors speak deliberately, their discourse broken by heavy silences; the camera seems to have weights attached. Signs starts out with a burst of 20th-century chromaticism—an urgent, stabbing score by James Newton Howard—then serves up a doozy of a first scene. Its hero is jolted awake, then plunges into the towering cornstalks in search of his missing children. Silence ... the chittering of insects ... the swish of corn ... the tinkle of wind chimes ... the creak of a swing set. He spies a tiny figure amid the rows—his little girl (Abigail Breslin) in a nightgown. His son (Rory Culkin, Mac's brother)—another of those Shyamalan adolescents with circles under his eyes and an expression of boundless worry—is staring at something offscreen. "I think God did it," he says. Graham puts his foot on a flattened stalk of corn; then the camera lifts up—way, way up—to reveal a perfect circle that dwarfs the three humans. Awesome opening, dude.

The Shyamster cribs from the best: obviously Steven Spielberg, who invented the low-angle, riding-in-on-the-open-mouthed-hero camera move; Night of the Living Dead (1968), with its claustrophobic boarded-up farmhouse, with all the info coming in through TV and radio broadcasts; and The Blair Witch Project (1999), with its terrifyingly limited vantage, its video camera jerking wildly in pursuit of things barely glimpsed. The movie is more deeply chilling for its lack of Independence Day spectacle. When Gibson and his brood gather around the television (it has rabbit ears—no cable for Bucks County farmers), the air is thick with dread. The boy has the idea of hauling out his sister's old baby monitor to listen for alien communication: He picks up static, high-pitched feedback, clicks layered with (barely discernible) whispers—goosebump city. (I once picked up a psychiatrist on my daughter's baby monitor telling a friend how little attention she'd paid to her patients that week; that was even eerier.)

"The Next Spielberg" announced Newsweek, on its cover. Er, no. But the Shyamster is more focused than Spielberg, a supernatural blend of huckster and believer. The two impulses worked synergistically in The Sixth Sense (1999), which brilliantly used all my critical faculties against me. For two hours I wrote off the arid silences, the lack of eye contact with the hero, the soundtrack's deep groans and amplified clanks, as the director's arty mannerisms: Did he pull the wool over my eyes! He wasn't as triumphant in Unbreakable (2000), which rested on the fallacy that the material of superhero comics and pulp novels would, when slowed to a glacial pace, take on a holy/religious aspect. The film did pretty well at the box office, but the Shyamster must have known he could only fool some of the people some of the time: Signs is a much bigger crowd-pleaser.

He has provided a second male lead—the deft Joaquin Phoenix as Graham's brother—to be both the comic relief and the mouthpiece for belief: the comic belief! He writes deflating observations for the moppets and directs them with his customary bravura. He has a gift, it seems, for making kid actors feel secure to enough to let themselves get genuinely spooked. It's too bad he flattens Cherry Jones as the local cop. She makes her entrance prattling nervously, and it's the slowest, most metronomic prattle you've ever heard. You know where that tempo comes from when Shyamalan shows up as the guy who killed Gibson's wife. He delivers a big speech about the accident, how it couldn't have just been chance, how it must have been meant to be, and his delivery is even more stupefying. Any other director would have fired his ass.

As a scare picture, Signs is good enough. As a religious parable, it's scarier—and I don't mean that as a compliment. The story of an alien invasion met with faith, its invaders are symbolic of what happens to people—and their children—when they become cynical unbelievers, writing off both the bad and the good as the product of chance. Shyamalan is saying that when you reject God, you kill your kids. The idea that an atheist or agnostic parent could be good parent—could instill values of skepticism and intellectual rigor—is outside this movie's purview.

I write this not as an atheist but as a person of faith—a faith I feel empowers me to label Shyamalan a charlatan. It isn't hard to make a movie that proves the controlling existence of God, because the writer/director of a movie is its god. He or she has determined the outcome, fashioned the people, and arranged the mise en scène. He or she has said, "Let there be light." Details can be planted early that will pay off later; a deus ex machina can be lowered on cue. Without any real dramatic tension, a movie-director God can be profligate with His manna. The miracles of Signs are baby-food miracles, more cannily orchestrated than the phantom baseball-playing daddies of Field of Dreams (1987) but just as brain-dead. If there is a God, He doesn't work in such facile, B-movie ways. And what of all the people in the world who don't share the fate of this test-case daddy who renewed his faith? It's a short step to saying that they haven't been "saved."

Signs could be the work of a fundamentalist church group, except that Shyamalan has been careful to make his Almighty nondenominational. There's even talk of three Middle Eastern countries repelling the invaders by "ancient methods"—which I take as code for the power of the great world religions. In a year in which many of us gathered around the television to witness acts of seemingly inhuman destruction, Signs offers a way of framing the experience for maximum righteous uplift. I found myself longing to see it reframed on SouthPark: Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed versus the Invaders From Mars. 

Blair Underwood and Julia Roberts get Full Frontal exposure
Blair Underwood and Julia Roberts get Full Frontal exposure

The meaning of Signs could not be more clear: They're not signs, they're signifiers. The meaning of the new Steven Soderbergh ensemble picture Full Frontal (Miramax) could not be more opaque. I honestly don't have a clue what it's about; it went completely over my head. My guess is that after a series of successes, each in a different style, Soderbergh became so high on the process of making movies and so convinced of his cinematic free will that he thought he'd pull a feature out of a hat. He and screenwriter Colman Hough assembled the film out of themes and themelets and improvisations and a Dogma-style shooting schedule, and in a couple of scenes they hit pay dirt: Julia Roberts as a movie star eating a tuna sandwich and flirting creepily with her assistant; Catherine Keener as an unbalanced executive cursing a traffic jam and playing head games with employees; Nicky Katt preening narcissistically as a know-it-all actor in a misbegotten Hitler comedy. It's clear that Full Frontal has something to do with the world as seen through the prism of high-gloss movies (there is a high-gloss movie being shot with Roberts playing an actress playing a journalist and Blair Underwood playing an actor playing an actor) versus the glancing, sloppy, haphazard connections of real life—except the "real life," as shot on muzzy video, seems equally arch and studied. When the camera pulls back at the end to show that—surprise!—the "real life" isn't real life but a movie, you think, "No shit."

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