'Signs' fails to point anywhere

The new thriller starring Mel Gibson disappoints with clichés and tepid suspense

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

An unseen spirit hovers over "Signs," the new M. Night Shyamalan movie.

It's the spirit of "The Birds," which arrived 40 years ago and still looks fresh today.

"Signs" won't look fresh next week. Hollywood has taken quite a nosedive from Alfred Hitchcock's imaginative flight to Shyamalan's self-important summer fluff.

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Mel Gibson plays Graham, a former clergyman who's lost his faith after his wife's accidental death. Now he raises crops on a Pennsylvania farm with his slow-witted brother (Joaquin Phoenix) and two young kids.

They blame local hoaxers when mysterious circles – the kind some attribute to UFO visitations – show up in their fields one night, but TV reports a spate of similar enigmas in other parts of the world.

It's the first sign of an alien invasion, followed by spacecraft zooming through the skies and sightings of scary-looking extraterrestrials on the ground.

This poses big questions for Graham, who's still undergoing his crisis of faith.

Is human existence a cosmic accident, which means we're on our own when disaster looms? Or does life have deeper significance, which means everything is part of a large, ultimately merciful plan?

The trouble with "Signs" isn't that it raises such important issues, but that it does so in such clumsy and superficial ways.

Every time the story promises to get really thoughtful, Shyamalan douses it with overwrought emotion, family-values clichés, and tepid space-monster suspense.

If the movie fails as philosophy, it's even worse as a thriller, riddled with plot holes big enough to accommodate an entire fleet of flying saucers.

For one sweeping example, how did these aliens manage to arrive on Earth, set up an invisible shield in the sky, and massacre an untold number of humans, when they're so physically weak and mentally mushy that a mild-mannered veterinarian can imprison one in his kitchen cupboard?

Shyamalan launched his career impressively with "The Sixth Sense," then slumped with "Unbreakable," which was too ambitious for its own good.

"Signs" isn't ambitious enough, focusing on a small group of poorly developed characters, while keeping the real action – humanity fighting for its life – almost completely off the screen.

"The Birds" did an infinitely better job of linking its isolated main characters with the larger world around them.

It's encouraging to see Hollywood tackle themes of faith and religion, but here, too, Shyamalan is timid, reducing them to fuzzy New Age clichés. Add wooden acting, stilted dialogue, and a faux-arty style, and you have a thudding disappointment.

• Rated PG-13; contains violence and vulgar language.

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