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Signs (M. Night Shyamalan) 2002

   

    There are those who have a devout belief that M. Night Shyamalanís success is something predestined and hard-earned, and then there are those who think that heís just lucky. Iím one of the latter, I suppose. Ignoring the early works that he made before he became a wannabe-auteur, his films seem to operate on a principle that tells their everyman protagonists (and the everymen sitting out there in the audience), ďEven your mundane life could contain something wondrous!Ē This tract is supposed to inspire in the audience a renewed sense of wonder in the genre film, since it assumes that the audience has outgrown since theyíve learned of the harsh realities of real life, but it ends up not working, primarily because everyone who goes to see a genre film does so precisely so they can forget about the sort of thing that he attempts to introduce. Shyamalan never feels confident that we understand that the setting for his flights of fancy is something that closely resembles reality and ends up harping on that point endlessly. Instead of establishing his realistic fantasy world and then diving into it to reinvigorate the generic constructs that heís toying with, he consistently gets stuck in neutral, leaving the audience stranded in a place thatís neither satisfying as a fantastic or factual realm, then pops a shock ending on them thatís supposed to make up for all of the disappointment we feel.

   

    A lot of folks buy into this formula, but for me itís wholly unsatisfying since it somehow suggests that the genre film isnít a worthwhile venture unless itís being deconstructed and reinvented. I think routine sci-fi and horror films are completely worth my time though, so for Shyamalan to suggest that they are somehow inferior modes of entertainment that need to be gussied up with faux-profundities, arty visuals and endless navel gazing seems awfully condescending. Outside of a brief scare or two in The Sixth Sense, I havenít felt a single moment in any of his films that made me remember what it was that made me love the films of the genre being tweaked. Thereís little thatís scary or mysterious about The Sixth Sense, little thatís thrilling or heroic in Unbreakable, and little thatís otherworldly or frightening about Signs, his latest film. I suppose the director has improved here a little over his last effort since his direction here is a bit quicker and looser and there are some moments of levity thrown in (usually at the expense of suspense), but thatís not really saying much. Shyamalan is still a strict formalist and his mannered direction has many more cobwebs to shake out before he can approach the transcendent glee that a competent genre deconstructor like De Palma often does.

   

    Iím sure Signs, which shows a microcosmic look at a macrocosmic alien invasion, will have its admirers since its methodic nature suggests thereís something profound going on beneath the surface. There really isnít though. Instead of pondering, we get ponderousness. This time at bat, the movie is supposed to be a meditation on lapsed faith, but thereís nothing here that wasnít better conveyed by Harvey Keitelís former minister in From Dusk Till Dawn, where it was relegated to a compelling subplot instead of the movieís excuse for a reason for being. Like Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense, Signs takes place in Pennsylvania (my home state, incidentally), and in what seems to be the filmís most explicit homage to someone besides Hitchcock, the movie adopts, in its second half, the setup of George Romeroís classic horror film Night of the Living Dead, which was set outside Pittsburgh. It pales miserably in comparison though, both in the amount of empathy that you feel toward its characters - who start out as likable sorts, but then are so obviously held up as likable sorts that you begin resenting them - and the amount of fear that builds, so you have to wonder why the director would embarrass himself with the association (one must assume itís pomposity). Ultimately, Signs, like Shyamalanís last two efforts, disappoints most because it fails to be a genre film first and foremost. Hopefully, next time the director decides to dabble in a filmic niche, heíll stop to think first about what it is that makes that niche endure.

 

* 1/2 

08-01-02 

Jeremy Heilman