A Positive Sign

M. Night Shyamalan's new film succeeds with a good script and camerawork.

In spite of the fact that most pre-1970s science fiction and horror genre movies sucked, I still have a soft spot for them. I mean, you have to cut them some slack, because, first of all, most everything that happened pre-1970s sucked (see, for example, the Crusades or My Mother The Car or the assassination of Martin Luther King), and secondly, they tended to have really tiny budgets, because the studios generally didn't take the horror and science fiction genres seriously, and would spend all their money on dramas and musicals.

As a result, the old-style genre movies had to make do without the $100 million explosives-and-breasts budget that modern films pretty much take for granted. In place of flaming D-cups they would, whenever possible, rely on whatever art was available to them to bring out the human response to things like monsters called Zontar and Martians who need women.

Which is what makes M. Night Shyamalan's latest, Signs, such a treat: It's a big budget, 21st century "event" movie that acts like a low budget, 1950s genre movie. There are no expensive, hyper-detailed space ships, no spectacular exploding Amazon women from Venus, no one named "Jar Jar."

Instead of breasts and beasts, Shyamalan gets most of the visual appeal in his film from his careful camera placement and thoughtful framing. Low angles with subtle placement of actors against beautifully aged sets make much of Signs look like something that Cindy Sherman would kill to create.

The care with the camera creates a creepy ambience where needed, and allows Shyamalan to get just as much punch out of his almost exclusive use of only four main characters as the special-effects whores get out of their casts of thousands of computer-animated aquatic dogs.

Plus, in strong contrast to most of the contempo "event movies," the dialogue in Signs is consistently funny. In fact, Signs is easily the best deadpan comedy to come out of a major studio in years. Not like there's any competition in the deadpan category, but it's nice to see that someone thinks words can be funnier than poop and crooked teeth (and crooked teeth filled with poop).

The success of the script owes a great deal to the performance of Joaqin Phoenix as Merril Hess. He plays live-in brother to Mel Gibson's Father Graham Hess, a lapsed minister who, having lost his wife, is raising his two precocious children.

His son is played by Rory Culkin, and as the last name "Culkin" might intimate, he's pretty annoying in the role. Seven-year-old Abigal Breslin, as Gibson's daughter Bo, is, on the other hand, excellent at the mannered acting style that Shyamalan seems to like. She does a great job maintaining the deadpan style of delivery that the older actors use, and even gets one of the films funniest lines without doing any of the mugging that usually makes kid actors so irritating and marketable.

You may note that up to this point, I haven't really said anything about the plot of Signs, and in that I follow its ad campaign and theatrical trailers. All they reveal is that a man (Mel Gibson) who lives on a farm hears some weird noises and finds crop circles in his cornfield.

Knowing more than that will only take away the fun of Signs, which reveals the mystery behind the crop circles about a third of the way in, and then becomes increasingly suspenseful and engaging.

In spite of waiting a while to reveal the meaning of the crop signs, Shyamalan doesn't make the mistake of having this film build too slowly, something that marred his The Sixth Sense. That film was not entirely redeemed by its shock ending, because, as surprising as it was, it didn't make up for the tremendously slow first third of the film.

Signs, on the other hand, doesn't rely on a surprise ending, and paces its thrills more consistently. It does seem to rely on an incredibly shallow story about a minister who has lost his faith, but that story is just window dressing for the natty B-thriller that plays like the best of the old Twilight Zone episodes.

The faith story is the movie's weakest aspect, and I'm not sure it was really meant to be taken seriously. It may simply function as a way to set up some of the coincidences that give Signs its narrative cohesion. Basically, Father Graham Hess has left the ministry and abandoned his belief in God because something bad happened to him. You'd think that as a minister, you'd have some sense that bad things happen to people, but it seems to have come as a complete surprise to Hess.

What came as a surprise to me was the general lack of pretension in Signs. While both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable used the fantastic elements of their plots to support morals about human purpose, here Shyamalan uses his story about moral purpose to advance the plot. It's a good move; it keeps the film small; and it makes for a fun movie that you won't feel obliged to analyze afterwards. But most of all, it's a good example of what can happen if, instead of writing a script with a big budget in mind, a filmmaker were to write a script with a plot in mind. It's a crazy idea, but it just might work.

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