Signs Review

Image for Signs

Following the death of his wife, former man of the cloth Graham Hess lives on a farm with his two young children and younger brother. One morning, huge crop circles appear around the world — a 500-foot one shows up right outside the Hess house. Is it a pr


Anyone harbouring lingering doubts about M. Night Shyamalan’s towering talent will find them dispelled completely during the first hour of Signs. Hell, the opening credits alone channel genius: a Hitchcockian brew that Saul Bass could have concocted, complete with James Newton Howard’s Bernard Herrmann tribute-theme. Sadly, great filmmakers do not a great film guarantee, and fans of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable will have to wait a while longer for Shyamalan to move into the Spielberg-Hitchcock league which, just occasionally, appears to be his birthright.

Make no mistake, Shyamalan cuts beautifully, his camera movement is fluid yet never tentative, and his mise en scène is brilliantly composed. This is clearly a man who storyboards every shot. The results may be too hermetic for some tastes, too constructed, too cinematic even, but that is Shyamalan’s singular style and it fits his slow-build storytelling like a glove.

As a director of actors, he again encourages subtle, sardonic performances, especially from the children. And to add to the control of tone which distinguished The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Shyamalan the writer now reveals an unexpected wit — Signs is very funny indeed.

With the exception of one piece of miscasting (himself), the first two-thirds of Signs feels like a five-star classic. And yet, even when the movie is succeeding brilliantly, you might start thinking, “Where is this going? Can he pull this off?” But then you remind yourself, “Hey, this is the director of The Sixth Sense — his speciality is endings. He can do this.”

Well, sorry to report that M. Night Shyamalan does not have the ending this time around. The story he ultimately wants to tell, the themes he wants to highlight — family and faith — do not tally with what the audience came to see. And after all the fantastic foreplay, the audience needs and deserves an orgasm. This was Steven Spielberg’s ace with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. But that spectacular ending, for obvious reasons, was off the table, so Shyamalan goes the other way — deep into small, emotional territory, which only serves to highlight the most contrived elements of his style.

In some ways, Shyamalan is a victim of his own success. Many movies tail off in the last act but are still judged to be triumphs. But Shyamalan does not structure his stories that way; all the meaning is locked up in that key, final reel.

And, in the final analysis, you don’t need to be a movie critic or to know what mise en scène means, to conclude: “Jeez, those alien guys were rubbish.”

Good? Signs has passages of sustained brilliance that are beyond most merely good filmmakers, and yet Shyamalan has saddled himself with a story he cannot complete. And a story you can’t complete is a story that should not have been attempted.