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IN SHORT: Intelligent, if slow paced thrills. The positives outweigh any negative. [Rated PG-13 for some frightening moments. 107 minutes]
Ah, let us now delve deep into the Great Mysteries of Planet Earth. No, not the ruins of a great Roman Era city found submerged in the depths of the Bermuda Triangle. No, not the alleged alien spaceship runways scratched into the high plains of South America. Let us set out sights on the Heartland of the Great America, a small farm community in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Bread basket to a continent and a natural canvas to something that likes to smash the pre-harvest crop into circles and lines, patterns that pose a mystery to all. But before we get to all that . . .
It may be hard to imagine, but before television there was a thing called "radio," in most homes a huge box with big tubes lining its gut, spitting out pictureless dramas called "radio plays" which, sometimes, scared the hell out of the country. Get an encyclopedia. Look up "Orson Welles". Seventy plus years after Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan lets his sound technicians go wild as he brings the best elements of radio drama -- things are a lot scarier if you can't see what is doing the scaring (now look up "Spielberg" and/or "Jaws" in any readily available film history tome) and lets loose Signs. At its best, the scares come out of nowhere and had us jumping out of our seat. At its worst, it takes a damned long time building up to those "at its best" moments. Running all through the middle is a bit of backstory about the loss of Faith and what it takes to get it back.
Which brings us back to Father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), sorry, he hung up his collar six months before the story starts due to a freakish set of events that robbed him of his wife, Colleen, and his Faith in God. Those events are detailed in flashback by Shyamalan, who hides the truly disgusting parts in dialog that sets the scene and speeds off. Radio tactics, you gotta love 'em. In the intervening months, Hess has been joined on the family farm by his brother, ex-minor league ballplayer Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). The pair run watch over Graham's kidlets, an asthmatic son (Rory Culkin) and a snippet of a daughter so young that she probably won't remember her mother in a couple of years. If, that is, she lasts a couple of years.
Weird things start to happen on the Hess homestead. Noises in the night. A discovery of tramped down crops in an elaborate pattern -- crop circles, the current equivalent to other alleged alien sightings. Dad thinks that some local kids are playing a prank. The son, believing everything he reads in a book about these things, is convinced that extraterrestrial aliens are about to descend and destroy.
Whatever it is, it ain't "little". Don't forget that the centerpiece of this story is formed by a quartet of emotionally shell-shocked characters who don't need much to fire their imaginations. What happens to their world is best left to your imagination. More radio stuff. This ex-radio guy loves seeing that classic stuff, so to speak. Signs is too smart to be a standard BEM flick Shyamalan's script intelligently builds the tension but, when the scares come, they just weren't as big as our expectations were.
That means the capper in the Third Act didn't deliver for us. Your results may vary but, by the rules we laid down for this site years ago, we can't go into a deep discussion of what works and what doesn't because it means giving the ending away. That's a no-no here. Feel free to discuss it all on the message boards.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Signs, he would have paid . . .
Overall, our audience was happy enough with Signs. Us too, but that didn't keep 'em in their seats to decompress after all the shocks and escalating tension had played out. This ain't a summer "movie" movie. It is the second film with aims at statue nods and a wish for an early start on that race. T'ain't no diss, but Signs ain't no bug eyed monster flick, either.
Had to explain that BEM thing for the kidlets . . .
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