There's plenty to fear in 21st-century America, from terror strikes to the abductions and murders of children, especially if we have no sense that God cares or will do anything when we are imperiled. In his third major film as a director, M. Night Shyamalan takes our fears to an extraterrestrial level. Along the way he tells a less fantastic but more important story about loving God amid both fear and suffering.
The premise of Signs is that the large, hieroglyphic crop circles that show up in fields throughout the world are the work of menacing extraterrestrials. Shyamalan builds the tension with a subtlety worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, showing only glimpses of these threatening aliens; we hear them more than we see them. James Newton Howard's score echoes the tense music of Bernard Herrmann, who made several Hitchcock classics (including Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho) so memorable.
The circles end up in cornfields belonging to Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a former Episcopal priest who has resigned his ministry and nurses a grudge toward God. Yet Hess, or "Father," as his neighbors persist in calling him, cannot escape God so easily. He has removed a cross from a hallway wall, but its outline remains framed by household grime. When he tries to sound threatening to a nighttime intruder by cursing, the results are comical.
Although the possibility of seeing extraterrestrials pummeled is what will draw most people to see Signs, the dramatic heart of the film occurs when Hess is trapped in his home's basement with his son, Morgan (Rory Culkin); daughter, Bo (Abigail Breslin); and brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). Morgan begins suffering an asthma attack, his inhaler of medicine is upstairs with the space aliens, and it looks ...1