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
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
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