Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.
Our content rating (0-10): Violence 3; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 1
Our star rating (0-5): 4
I believe; help my unbelief!”
Most filmmakers dealing with the possibility of an alien invasion would roll out the special effects and ratchet up the volume to “Full.” Not M. Night Shyamalan, the talented director/writer who thrilled us with Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, and charmed us with Wide Awake. He is much more interested in what happens to his people facing a crisis than he is dazzling our eyes and ears. Indeed, in this science fiction drama, it is Mel Gibson’s Fr. Graham Hess’ struggle between faith and doubt that he focuses on—his use of silence and ordinary objects, such as the corn field, barking dogs, and glasses of water are far more disturbing than any close up of a slobbering alien. For half the film we are not certain as to what is happening out there in the cornfield, the filmmaker taking his cue from his master Alfred Hitchcock that “less is more” when it comes to suspense and horror.
Graham Hess is an Episcopal priest who has lost his faith because of a freak accident that killed his wife. His mind often flashes back to that last night’s conversation with her, filling him with anguish and anger, the latter which he directs toward God. His younger brother Merrill Hess (Joaquin Phoenix) has moved in to the farmhouse to help Graham with raising his young son and daughter, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). Something is out there in his cornfield that is disturbing the dogs and the children—and this is not Iowa, Graham’s field being more of a Field of Nightmares than of Dreams. The television reports from around the world are not reassuring. Merrill sees a parallel between what is happening and the plot of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. (This becomes important in the way the plot twists at the end.) When the four of them take refuge in their basement, the brothers talk, Graham raising the question, “Is it possible that there are no coincidences?” Although at first answering one way, he comes to a different conclusion later when Morgan has an asthma attack. Enough said about the plot.
Signs is the rare film that explores the life of faith and the disasters that threaten it and the questions which beset it. Although keeping us in suspense for much of the time, it is not really a horror film, but a tense tale about a man suffering a crisis of faith. Fr. Graham’s plea to the asthma-stricken Morgan is one that resonates throughout the Bible, “Don’t be afraid!” The film’s very last scene might be a bit too pat for some, but for many it will be reassuring. This is one film that cries out for discussion: be sure to gather a group of adults or older youth when it comes out on video—but then why wait, if it is still playing at a theater near your church?
Reprinted from the Aug. 2002 Visual Parables.