Hype is a very dangerous thing. When it happens to a level headed director, who has been around Hollywood for years, someone who has lived a bit - it can be difficult enough to handle. When a brand new director receives the level of hype that M. Night Shyalaman received off the back of The Sixth Sense, well it must be virtually impossible to handle.
Under the circumstances, the director did well - following up his debut thriller with the lauded (although not commercially successful) Unbreakable. Whether it was a conscious effort to head in a more commercial direction we will never know, but he followed Unbreakable with Signs an intriguing mixture of family drama, a study of loss of faith, and alien invasion.
Signs is a very difficult film to summarise without giving away spoilers, but I will do my very best here. Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, an ex vicar who has left the church after losing his faith. The cause of this was the death of his wife, killed after being pinned between two cars. Just before she died, however, she was able to whisper something.......
Against this background, Hess returns to the family farm and embarks on a rustic life of farming whilst looking after his two children (Abigail Breslin and Rory Culkin). His brother (Joaquin Phoenix) has also moved in to help look after the children.
So far, so Waltons - but this is no happy family soap and it soon becomes clear that all is not well in the world. Crop circles start to appear, and a child's birthday party does not go as well as planned. It soon becomes clear that Earth is being visited by an alien presence. And they are not friendly.
As already mentioned, Signs is not your average alien invasion movie. Shyamalan brings his own unique style to the story by choosing to focus on just one family, with very little reference to what is occurring in the rest of the world. This brings a sense of intimacy to the story and makes it feel more immediate and real to the viewer. This is enhanced by the performances that are given by the main actors. Phoenix is as good as ever in his role, and Gibson gives a beautifully nuanced performance as the lead character, beset by personal demons that are mirrored by the unwelcome invaders. His performance is matched by Culkin who gives a heart-breaking performance as the eldest son.
A lot of people felt that Signs failed because of the lack of pace inherent in the film. Whilst I can accept that the film does take a languid approach to its subject, I feel that this enhances the feeling of dread and suspense rather than ruin it. After all, in an age where an alien invasion film tends to have plenty of bang for your buck - to me it makes a pleasant change to be presented with a more intimate, slow, and realistic portrayal of how events might play out. Although it is inferior to Close Encounters of the Third Kind I do find many similarities between the films, and the way they approach a similar subject. Both films take their time, both films center on a troubled lead character, and both films lead to a kind of redemption for that character.
Perhaps one of the reasons Signs is not more highly regarded is that Shyamalan is not afraid to take his subject seriously and treat it with a kind of reverence. He is not afraid to take his time with his material, moving his camera with an assured hand, presenting us with unusual camera angles, and building up the suspense very gradually using sound and image. This kind of slow build is certainly not for everyone, but if you like your films to bring a slow burning intensity to your screen, and to bring a sense of reality to a crowded genre then you will find Signs an enjoyable and thought-provoking film.