Signs

(2002, rated PG-13) Mel Gibson (Graham Hess), Joaquin Phoenix (Merrill Hess), Rory Culkin (Morgan Hess), Abigail Breslin (Bo Hess), Cherry Jones (Officer Paski), Ray Reddy (M. Night Shyamalan), Patricia Kalember (Colleen Hess). Music: James Newton Howard. Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan. Director: M. Night Shyamalan. 106 minutes.

Tags: Horror, Suspense, Kitsch, Stupid

Notable: Apart from indicating just how bad Shyamalan can be, not a helluva lot.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Well, there’s two hours of my life that I won’t get back.

Former minister Graham Hess (Gibson) wakes to find a 500-foot crop circle in his cornfield. As worldwide reports show similar, nearly identical crop circles all over the globe, people begin to fear that this is not a hoax, like the ones in the early 1980s; aliens really are here, and no one knows if they’re friendly or not. After sightings of ships and actual aliens, the world throws itself into panic, and they fear that the human race may be run. Hunkering down in his farm home with his brother Merrill (Phoenix) and two children (Culkin and Breslin), Hess must find a way to survive the possible “end times” without the power of his faith.

I can’t believe I actually wrote that without puking.

I was so wary about watching and reviewing this film that I began the review even as I was watching. It starts out as a pretty fair comedy, considering how blank-faced and empty the performances are. “Seasoned actors” are easily outshone by the kids in the film, and the bit roles are about as cardboard as you can get (I love the utterly expressionless Army guy in the recruiting center that Joaquin Phoenix visits). “Ominous” shots of the cornfield are an unintentional homage to Field of Dreams, or perhaps Children of the Corn, but there’s nothing the least bit scary about them. It’s corn. I roast corn and eat it, that’s how badass I am!

About 35 minutes in, we actually get a clue that maybe “they’re out there” after all. At this point (after a pawful of up-to-now pointless jump-scares), the dad and his brother become speechless as the children behave and speak like adults, wanting to tape the television reports for posterity. (I didn’t know Shyamalan hired Charlie Brown as a secret co-scriptwriter.) The TV news tells the world that there are “lights hovering above Mexico City,” and that triggers the mini-sermon from our former minister about whether or not this is proof of miracles or not. The brother offers a story about how it was a miracle that he narrowly avoided kissing a girl at a party who was just about to barf her brains out; this, he explains, is proof of miracles. I am now hardly able to watch this film for how uproariously stupid it is, and we’re not quite halfway through. I force myself; there might be something even worse in here.

At the halfway mark, we’re treated to the sort of tedious monologues (this one delivered by Shyamalan himself) that mark Shyamalan’s descent from the summit of Boy Wonderhood (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) to the depths of Middle-Aged Bumblerhood (The Happening, Lady in the Water): The world is ending, everything is my fault, gonna crawl in a hole and eat worms. And by the way, Father Hess, don’t open my pantry; I caught one of them and locked him in there.

[We now pause for several seconds of disbelief that I’m still starving for my art while this worn-out jackass keeps getting nothing but worse yet is being paid millions]

Meanwhile, on TV, brother Merrill gets to host our first filmed glimpse of an alien, apparently crashing some little kid’s birthday party… and he looks like one of the “lizard men” from the very first episode of the original Jonny Quest cartoon series. No, really: I’ve got the DVD to prove it. Meanwhile, back at the pantry in the other guy’s house, Hess is going to go take a peek, in spite of the “warning.” Stupid sentences, false jump-scares, and Hess returns home to find everyone wearing aluminum foil hats to keep the aliens from reading their minds. To quote Whoopi Goldberg’s Jamaican character, “I fell out, child!”

And then we get to the whole end-of-the-world, last meal thing, with Mel Gibson deteriorating in the script sort of the way he did in real life. (That was prophetic!) By the time we get to the “last stand in the basement” scene (about 80 minutes in), you can see how Shyamalan duplicated the vast majority of his “scares” and “suspense” from the 1963 Robert Wise film of The Haunting. He really should have studied more closely, as his technique lacks the panache of the film nearly 40 years it senior.

Finally, the entire film circles back around to the patented Shyamalan Moral Compass Ending™ which explains all about how the “signs” are not the crop circles but the idea that there are no coincidences, nothing happens by accident, and Hess’ wife’s dying words, Morgan’s asthma, Shyamalan’s character’s feeble explanation for running, and the mysterious half-full glasses of water all over the living room come together to bring about the saving of the Hess family and restore the father’s faith. Hoo hah.

If you want to make a movie about redemption, leave the pretense to horror at the gate and make a redemption movie. The gantze megillah about this film, according to the hype, was that it was “A suspense-filled Twilight Zone thriller” (Good Morning America), “A dazzling white-knuckler” (Rolling Stone), and “Thrilling, frightening, heartbreaking, funny, and deeply moving. You will have to see it twice” (CNN). No, by all that’s holy and a few things that aren’t, NO. Once was bad enough. As for those reviewers, I truly believe that there is a special circle of Hell waiting just for them.

Shyamalan had directed other films prior to his breakout blockbusters, but he came into his own as a writer/director with The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000). This is his third film in that capacity, and it was a mistake from beginning to end. After this was The Village (2004), which wasn’t too horribly bad (“E” for Effort), but from then on, he pretty well has hit the skids. It’s been said of geniuses, “Where do you go from up?” Like Stephen King, who has also become erratic in his delivery over the past two decades, Shyamalan should have read the writing on this particular wall before he got this far. If you’re looking for something so bad that it’s unintentionally funny, waste a few hours on this travesty; otherwise, you can safely give it a miss.

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