on August 02, 2002 by Christine James
   "Signs, signs, everywhere signs/Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind/'Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?'" If only all signs were as clear as those that beleaguered the hippie-era Five Man Electrical Band (to wit: "Long-haired freaky people need not apply" and "All trespassers will be shot on sight"). But portents of importance are by nature obscured, to be found only by those who seek. And Reverend-turned-farmer Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is suffering from a pronounced case of spiritual short-sightedness. His wife having been killed in a freak accident involving a drowsy driver (writer/director M. Night Shyamalan of "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable" in his obligatory vanity cameo), Graham has abandoned his faith, to the malaise of his sweetly precocious but emotionally fragile children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin). The family--including Graham's earnest but directionless might've-been ball-player brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix)--finds their dysfunctional soldiering-on disrupted by strange doings: The animals are going crazy, unseen strangers are heard running on the roof, and the kids somnambulistically wander into the cornfield, where the vegetation has been flattened into giant, geometrically precise shapes. Graham dismisses the decades-old theory of crop circles--imprints of alien spacecraft landing gear--convinced that pranksters with too much time on their hands are to blame. ("Nerds were doing it 25 years ago; new nerds are doing it now," Merrill concurs). But when similar phenomena occur around the world in mass quantity and, soon after, the alien ships reveal themselves, Graham must face the possibility of the end of the world in the cold shadow of faithlessness.

   The multi-entendre title refers on the literal level to the physical crop circles themselves (signs or symbols) and their purpose (UFO road signs); the subtext here (overt enough to be deemed supertext) concerns the everyday signs and mini-marvels that hide miracles. Even the intern to the Devil's Advocate could easily counter the optimistic dogma that dictates that everything good is God looking out for you and everything bad has some purpose (though it's not as likely to reveal itself as dramatically or gratifyingly as it does here). This outlook is clearly defined in freshman-level psychology classes as self-preserving rationalization.

   Still, it's a heartening idea put forth in a formulaically appealing way, with strong family values, a few sci-fi thrills (few being the operative word, to the disappointment of parapsychology fans), dashes of comic relief (mostly in the form of the guileless Merrill and a Shasta retromercial), and, not incidentally, Mel Gibson at the fore, grappling grippingly. Then there's Shyamalan's now-trademark revelation that cosmically ties everything together. It works well enough, and evokes another verse from the Electrical Band, which might have played well during the closing credits: "I got me a pen and a paper, and I made up my own little sign/It said, 'Thank you Lord for thinkin' about me; I'm alive and doin' fine.'" Starring Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin. Directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan. Produced by M. Night Shyamalan, Frank Marshall and Sam Mercer. A Buena Vista release. Drama/Thriller. Rated PG-13 for some frightening moments. Running time: 106 min

Tags: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, M. Night Shyamalan, Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer, Buenas Vista, Drama, Thriller, aliens, Merrill, Graham Hess

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