Reviewed by Jeff DeLuzio
Rating: 1 Beans
As of this writing (August 2002), it's one of the summer's best-selling films, a product of M. Night Shyamalan, Hollywood's up-and-coming auteur.
And no, I don't think this is a terrible movie.
It's just not a very good one.
In fairness, the film boasts a number of virtues. While the characters are hopeless clichés (a man of God who lost his faith, a jock past his glory days, two precocious kids), Shyamalan and his cast make them plausible. The dialogue, often naturalistic and very funny, recalls real family life rather than the stagy, scripted version typical of Hollywood movies.
Most admirable is the director's willingness to be understated. Instead of the bombastic, music-laden scenes of so many thrillers, Shyamalan gives us quiet ones. He makes excellent use of minimal sets and cast. The suspense, especially in the first half, works well. This might have made an excellent episode of, say, "The Outer Limits."
But a summer movie at first-run prices?
That's when the bad of this film really begins to grate.
But first, a warning: SPOILERS follow. Lots of SPOILERS. If you don't want to read SPOILERS, proceed no further.
All right, then.
The film's naturalistic setting and dialogue help make the horror seem plausible, but the underlying melodramatic cliché undercuts both. The death of Hess's (Mel Gibson's) wife, in particular, is handled in the most soap-opera-esque fashion. Yes, these things happen and yes, they are very hard to make convincing onscreen. But Shyamalan's a good director. He should know not to linger on something if he cannot convince us it matters.
Hess was a minister; his wife's death brings about a crisis of faith. The film clearly parallels this loss with the alien invasion, and the latter must be read as some sort of reflection on the former. The problem is that Shyamalan gives us neither a fable-like tone nor a fantasy story. Nor does he create the kind of twist for which he is famous, the sudden turn that makes sense of the rest of the film or redefines the experience. I eagerly awaited something that would reveal an internal logic to the plot. Perhaps the invasion was all in Hess's mind (this might have made a better film). Perhaps we would have some metafictional turn, with the characters realizing they are fictional beings, manipulated by a higher intelligence (I wondered about this when Shyamalan first appeared, in a cameo as the man responsible for Hess's wife's death).
Instead, the tone and treatment are straightforward. In the world of the film, the Bug-Eyed Monsters really are invading, killing people, and even daring to challenge the protagonist's faith. Given the film's setting-- an isolated farmhouse-- a hundred other reasons could have been given for the assault on the Hess family. Or, we might have been given none at all, and focussed entirely on the family in terror. Instead, Shyamalan makes the aliens painfully literal, while joining the list of Hollywood directors who base their SF on lame UFO lore: crop circles, dubious footage of furtive things, mysterious invaders. Presented seriously, this concoction makes absolutely no sense.
The film gives us aliens who can traverse the vast distances of interstellar space in crafts that, as a bonus, can turn invisible. The invaders' purpose is to harvest humans as food (they couldn't have just rustled some cattle?), and they must know they will face opposition. So, despite their very advanced technology, these same aliens prance around without weapons, protective gear, or even a good crowbar to bash the barricades the Hess family hastily slap together at the ol' farmhouse.
Later, we learn the invaders have been repulsed when brave humans discover that water kills them. No, I'm not kidding. An element that covers the majority of the earth's surface, made from the most common element in the universe, causes them to die, chittering what I assume translates as "I'm melting…! What a world! What a world…!" Of course, none of the aliens (despite being identified as excellent problem-solvers) thinks to put on raincoat.
Equally unbelievable are the decisions made by some of the characters. The world is being invaded, remember. Two competent, if stressed, professionals have an alien trapped in the kitchen pantry. So, naturally, realizing the advantage this might give our side, they…. Call the police? Contact the military? E-mail a professor of biology? No: they leave it where it is and forget about it, so it can make a scary reappearance at the film's climax.
Now, I suppose this business with the boogeyman in the pantry could all be an awkward metaphor for the dangerous pain that Hess has been keeping locked in his personal closet. I suppose. But his action would still require plausible motivation within the film. It is maddening to have Gibson suddenly do something merely because the script says so.
When the aliens first retreat from earth, a reporter states only that a primitive method has been found to repel them. Well, hurray for supersoakers, but, given that some alien stragglers remain behind, couldn't they also state what the method was, instead of leaving the Hess family to figure it out by themselves?
These are not minor points. Despite the importance of the film's personal story, the sci-fi plot takes up most of the movie. Explanations are offered to counter some of the inevitable criticism (from a casebook on UFOs, for heaven's sake), but they (1) are ridiculous and (2) only reinforce how important the invasion is to the plot. Why hang a potentially clever reworking of a "trapped with a killer" storyline on an utterly asinine concept?
Then there's the film's theology, which many critics consider its real story. If that's what the film wants to sell, sorry. The thinking is as flawed as Shyamalan's version of science-fiction. Maybe Hess can put his collar back on, taking comfort in the thought that "there are no coincidences," that someone counts the ravens falling and cares so much more about us. Big deal. The entire world has been terrorized. We are told outright that many, many people have died. Where was God for them? For that matter, where is God for the alien invaders? If, in the real world, I've lost loved ones to some random accident or sickening disease, am I supposed to be happy believing this happened for a reason or, even worse, that it wouldn't have happened if we'd all just believed a little harder?
(Kids, maybe if you clap real hard, and believe in faeries....)
Shyamalan's other successful films paid careful attention to detail. When watching "The Sixth Sense," it doesn't matter whether one actually believes in ghosts. They exist in the world of the film, and they behave according to a consistent set of rules. "Unbreakable" was a far less impressive film, but it took its fantasy premise seriously, and followed through on the implications of that premise. "Signs" gives neither its aliens nor its theology adequate consideration. Indeed, one wonders if Shyamalan has been pushing himself too hard to complete new scripts in the wake of his "Sixth Sense" success, or merely making films from scripts that had been (rightfully) rejected before he became famous.
He's an extremely talented director. Perhaps he should turn to other people's scripts for awhile.
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