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Friday, August 9, 2002

Keith Keener's

Positive Movie Reviews

Signs

Some women love films if they are "four-hanky" movies, meaning that they use up four handkerchiefs while sobbing through the story of southern women learning to overcome divorce, alcoholism, and jealousy by having a secret sorority. Some teen-aged boys have the "four tissue" test for soft-porn films on Cinemax late on Friday nights, on a similar principle. But when I see an M. Night Shyalaman film, I measure it on how many pairs of my 38-inch briefs I use up. And with Signs, with three moments of wetting my pants in terror and one of actually defecating in uncontrolled, mortal panic, I actually felt that this was a "four-brief" movie. I should clarify, though, that I didn't actually change my briefs each time, because I didn't want to miss more of the movie. It was too good to leave the theater just because of the growing rash on my underside and the gagging sounds coming from the people sitting near me in the theater.

M. Night Shyalaman has become America's laureated poet of terror, having made a streak of creepy films with surprising twist endings. In The Sixth Sense, M. Night (who goes by the name Suge Knight when he raps and kills 2Pac Shakur) focused on the sad story of a sensitive psychologist who counsels a young boy who is for some reason upset because he keeps seeing bloody dead people walking around and asking him for things. At the end, in a shocking twist, we found out that Willis wasn't even talking to his wife, and that he was practically living in the basement and ignoring her.

In Unbreakable, Bruce Willis found out that he had superhuman powers by surviving an entire 50-mile ride on Amtrak. After two hours of conversations between Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, as a comic-book owner prone to hilarious pratfalls, Shyalaman hit us with a fabulous shock ending, in which Willis stops talking and actually fights someone. Contrast this with this year's Spiderman, which for some reason felt that a superhero movie should be filled with fights and action.

But with Signs, Shyalaman ups the ante, and it marks a bold step for him. This movie is Field of Dreams meets Independence Day, a combination so obvious that one wonders only what took people so long to make the connection. But in this case, the phrase "If you build it, they will come" takes on a sinister new meaning. Because it's not friendly Shoeless Joe Jackson but rather a group of angry aliens, who are also shoeless, now that I think of it.

In this film, all the "signs" point to an alien invasion of Earth, played by Mel Gibson's Pennsylvania farm. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a defrocked priest, lives quietly with his brother Merrill (River Phoenix, now going by the name Hakim Phoenix, to show his support for Arab-Americans) and his two children Morgan and Bo (MacRory Culkin and Hallie Kate Eisenberg). In flashbacks, we see why Gibson left the church; although he molested no one, he supervised twelve acknowledged pedophiles and allowed them to play the Apostles in an Easter pageant at St. Mark's School for Boys, with tragic consequences.

Anyway, on the farm, they get crop circles and strange markings that look like Prince's name, a resemblance enhanced by Shyalaman's decision to play "Sexy Motherfucker" every time a new symbol appears in a cornfield. Other evidence pops up as well, including a book about UFOs with accurate predictions about the invasion and a creepy title: To Serve Man. The clincher is a fierce battle over Los Angeles between an alien vessel and the P-Funk Mothership, in which Starchild prevails over the Thumposaurus People with the use of the Bop Gun. This is extremely fortunate, because otherwise there is nothing on earth that can hurt the aliens.

The only other special effect in the film is, like in Ridley Scott's Oscar winner Memoirs of a Gladiator, the performance by Hakim (River) Phoenix. As many of you know, River Phoenix actually died like six years ago, but with computer animation, he looks as fit as a fiddle.

As revolutionary as the film is, it also has all the Shyalaman signature elements we've come to know and love. There are no important female characters who would have made the movie kind of uncomfortable or made me think of tissues instead of my increasingly filthy underwear. Like Alfred Hitchcock, to whom he's often compared, Shyalaman always makes a cameo appearance in his movies, though his cameos usually now take about ten minutes or so. And there's that well-known Shyalaman humor. Like most children, Gibson's daughter is unable to express terror through, say, screaming, so instead she says in a monotone "There'samonsteroutsidemywindowcanIhaveaglassofwater?" And, a bit later on, "There'samonsterpleaseoopsmistershyalamanI'msorrydon'thitmeagain."

In fact, that famous Shyalaman control really makes the film, and is evident on screen. In the one scene that Shyalaman shares onscreen with Gibson, Gibson bursts into tears, and it is left deliberately ambiguous whether he did so out of fear or out of glee that M. Knight didn't yell at him again.

As for the jolts Signs delivers them aplenty. Here Shyalaman's gifts as a filmmaker are especially clear. By taking all of the flashlights used in the movie and coating their handles in Crisco, Shyamalan ensures that no light can be safely held for more than three seconds before squirting out of Gibson's or Phoenix's hand, and sliding across the ground to end up right next to an alien's hand. And the writer/director gets an extraordinary amount of adrenaline-pumping excitement from the fact that his characters aren't "the sharpest tools in the shed." In the most gripping moment, Gibson takes the only weapon in the entire movie, uses it primarily as a mirror, then hands it to an alien for safekeeping. That scene itself will be analyzed for years just like the shower scene in Psycho and the shower scene in Porky's 3: The Quickening.

Best of all, though, is the message of the movie. At a time when too many other films seem to believe that the world's problems can be solved by a bite from a genetically altered spider or by a time-traveling pack of monkeys who have just left rehab (actually, this is the screenplay I am working on), Signs realizes that the most powerful anti-alien weapon is faith in Jesus. I thank God that the aliens attacked in the United States, where at least someone was looking out for us. If the initial strikes had been in, say, Red China, I'd be willing to bet that the aliens would make it halfway around the world before Jesus showed some interest.

My only minor complaint about the movie is that Shyalaman, who tries to respect the intelligence of the audience even as he is obviously frustrated by our stupidity, leaves too many things ambiguous. Like, if Gibson is a priest, why is he married? And where is his wife?

This movie has all the Signs of an Oscar juggernaut! I predict that next February, Shyamalan, Gibson, and Culkin will brutally invade and dominate the Academy Awards.

On a scale of four or five stars, I give Signs four-and-a-half stars.

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Earlier Positive Movie Reviees can be found at home.earthlink.net/~dleheny