Up until the last decade, there was great public interest in the whole phenomenon of 'crop circles'. Though alleged sightings of crop circles go back at least 1200 years, it was during the Eighties and Nineties that both the number of sightings and the sophistication of their patterns grew dramatically all around the world. An entire field of study, cereology, sprouted up around this phenomenon, and a number of explanations were put forward. Some theories were somewhat credible (e.g., aberrations in the Earth's magnetic field) while others were patently ridiculous (e.g., space aliens).
So why did interest in crop circles drop off in the last few years? Alas, it appears that the whole crop circle phenomenon has been a huge hoax perpetrated by numerous individuals, using simple tools such as boards and lengths of rope. The most famous of the hoaxers were Doug Bower and Dave Chorley of England, who admitted to creating a number of circles starting in the late Seventies, though many more not-so-famous hoaxers have also been caught in other parts of the world.
Despite their rather mundane explanation, crop circles have made a permanent home in popular culture. The geometrically appealing images of crop circles have graced a Led Zeppelin album cover, as well as a number of advertisements. Now, crop circles get the big-screen treatment in "Signs", the latest offering from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, who helped audiences 'see dead people' in his breakout hit "The Sixth Sense" and recontexualized the mythos of the comic book superhero in "Unbreakable".
In "Signs", Mel Gibson ("What Women Want") plays Father Graham Hess, a former pastor who has lost his faith following the death of his wife in a car accident. He lives on the family farm with his two young children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), and his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix of "Gladiator"), a failed professional baseball player. One morning, Graham finds a fresh crop circle in his field and calls the local sheriff (Cherry Jones of "Erin Brockovich") in to investigate, convinced that it is merely an act of vandalism. However, in the days following this discovery, strange things begin to happen on the farm and around the world. Crop circles begin to appear all around the world, strange lights are seen over major cities, strange radio transmissions are heard, and Graham spies unknown intruders sneaking around his farm-- all of which seem to point to an imminent alien invasion of the Earth.
Thankfully, "Signs" is an improvement over Shyamalan's last feature "Unbreakable", where sluggish pacing and understated performances made a two-hour running time feel more like three. However, it still does not approach the heights reached by "The Sixth Sense". The best aspect of "Signs" is the tightly paced and atmospheric build-up that gradually ratchets up the suspense ever so slightly until all hell breaks loose. The alleged 'aliens' are kept from view, and Shyamalan only gives the audience brief glimpses of them, leaving open the interpretation that perhaps the 'alien invasion' is only the product of mass hysteria. And when a full-fledged alien invasion is apparently underway, "Signs" echoes "Night of the Living Dead" with Graham and his family barricading themselves in the house as intruders try to break their way in.
Given that Shyamalan's two previous features had 'twist endings', viewers will likely expect the same in "Signs". Unfortunately, in addition to lacking any twists, the film's conclusion is rather disappointing in light of the terrific build-up that led up to it. Though it ties in with Graham's loss of faith, it seems as if Shyamalan is grasping at straws with the film's 'there's a reason for everything' ending, as he arbitrarily pieces together a number of disparate plot points (baseball, asthma, glasses of water, etc.) together and proudly declares, "I MEANT to do that!" Not only does it feel forced, but it also ends up being unintentionally funny.
As Graham, Gibson is credible as the wounded Graham who, despite his cynicism and lack of faith, is still a dedicated and loving father. Gibson also gets some unexpected laughs in the film's few moments of comic relief, such as with Graham's poor attempts at cussing, or a run-in with a repentant drug store clerk. Gibson is ably supported by Phoenix, who gives a quiet and low-key performance as Merrill, and the two kids, Culkin and Breslin, who are a delight to watch. And as he has done in his other films, Shyamalan pulls an 'Alfred Hitchcock' by making a brief appearance as a neighbor who was responsible for the death of Graham's wife.
Though it lacks the brilliance of Shyamalan's claim to fame, "The Sixth Sense", "Signs" still manages to be a passable piece of summertime entertainment. Up until the last twenty minutes, "Signs" offers plenty of edge-of-your-seat suspense as it is never clear where the story is going and the audience shares in the sense of discovery with the on-screen characters. Unfortunately, after that point, the story stumbles with a less-than-thoughtful ending, squandering what could have been a remarkable film.