Signs, signs, everywhere signs
Without even opening the cover of the latest issue of Newsweek, which features a picture of director M. Night Shyamalan behind a caption that boldly declares him 'The Next Spielberg,' the reason behind the gimmicky comparison becomes obvious after viewing Signs. Shyamalan, who rocketed into the Hollywood A-list after his debut feature, The Sixth Sense, landed him on the Oscar ballot, continues his stylized brand of simplistic cinematic spook stories with this, his third film. So, is this up-and-coming young moviemaker the next Spielberg after all? Well, Signs proves that the answer to this question is both yes and no.
Mel Gibson stars as Graham Hess, the stoic father of two young children, living on a sizeable farm outside of Pennsylvania. A former man of the cloth, Hess abandoned his faith after his wife was hit and killed by a dozing local driver and is now raising his kids with the help of younger brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). When the clan discovers a large, mysterious pattern carved into their corn crop, the group is seized by a panicked curiosity about who or what could be responsible. Is this the work of God? Have pranksters done this? Are little green men the culprits?
Combining Shyamlan's distinctively slow, steadied camerawork with a kitschy 1950s style sci-fi TV show, Signs is a refreshing blend of opposites. From the opening credits, which features stark black writing against a gray sun-splashed backdrop and accompanied by a grating staccato soundtrack, Signs is declared as a kind of extended episode of The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents from the very start. And, with Gibson and company living in a bizarrely enclosed 'burb lost somewhere between the 1940s and today (you gotta love a town where everybody calls you Father even after you've quite the church), the feeling that Alfred Hitchcock will appear on screen in the final frame to explain what just happened never quite leaves.
The triumph of Shyamalan's latest film once again shines through in the wonderful storytelling. With the action essentially limited to the house, Shyamalan shows great skill at developing a compelling and, at times, terrifying scenario that finally fits together like a completed jigsaw puzzle. Another surprising highlight comes from the exquisite ensemble cast-youngsters Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin are exception as the two smallest Hesses with Joaquin Phoenix once again shining in a supporting role (Phoenix nearly upstaged Russell Crowe in Gladiator).
And, as for the reference to a certain other well-known filmmaker, the comparison is certainly worth noting because Shyamalan demonstrates here his unique ability to combine intelligent filmmaking with simple ideas and shiny American values. Steven Spielberg's genius isn't simply his ability to craft unforgettable images, it's his ability to craft those images in the context of identifiable stories that give mass audiences hope and comfort. It's Spielberg's unique, and uncanny, understanding of how to manipulate audiences and please them at the same time that sets him apart from his peers. It's a quality that is both fascinating and infuriating to watch unfold. And, in many ways, Shyamalan displays similar tendencies. Like Spielberg, he is wed to patriarchal themes-his films all attempt re-establish the nuclear family, a journey that, for Shyamalan, usually centers on children re-connecting with their father. In The Sixth Sense, a fatherless pre-teen gets a surrogate kind of dad in the form of Bruce Willis' ghost of shrink. In Unbreakable another kid connects with his dad through a comic book-like fable that turns his pops into a superhero. In Signs, this journey takes on an added element of faith, as the story strives to turn Gibson's character back into both a father and a Father.
While there's no doubt that this young director displays shades of a Hollywood legend, Shyamalan still shares more philosophy with the elder director than style. Shyamalan certainly has proven that, like Spielberg at his worst, underneath his finely tuned stories often lay disappointingly hollow cores.
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