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Circles in the corn, field of nightmares

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Back in the 1950s, the heyday of the alien invasion flick, it really meant something when those saucers hovered over great cities, zapping buildings and disintegrating people with their death rays, and uniting the world in opposition to defeat the otherwise superior beings from outer space, who of course filled in for the Red Menace.

            At some point, perhaps through the influence of the earnest UFOlogists of Roswell, New Mexico, and those simple country folk recounting their experiences of abduction and probing in loving detail, the hideous monsters of fond memory turned into our old friends, the little green men, something of a disappointment after those years of frightening space ships and interstellar warfare.

            In its contemporary decadent phase, such Hollywood theologians as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (think Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T. The Extraterrestrial, not AI: Artificial Intelligence) converted the form into an excuse for soppy and academic religious inquiry, which made both them and some reviewers feel very smart and thoughtful, you bet.

            Although M. Night Shyamalan's new movie Signs takes the form's religious potential in a new direction, it actually depends heavily on a couple of otherwise dissimilar films of the past, the 1950s classic War of the Worlds, which a character specifically mentions, and the influential, low-budget horror flick, Night of the Living Dead, an odd combination indeed. The director employs those crop circles that provide fodder for ominous television documentaries narrated by people like Leonard Nimoy, as the signs of his title. These are mysterious geometric patterns apparently created overnight in corn fields, in this case by creatures from another planet.

            Because the picture concentrates on the experience of one family under attack from the invaders, and focuses almost entirely on suspense, shock, and scares rather than on the origin of the aliens, the technology that brought them to Earth, or even their peculiar qualities, it really belongs in the category of horror rather than science fiction.

            As in most reports of alien encounters, the central visit occurs in a rural area, far from a population center, a military base, a government installation, or even any particular tourist attraction. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) lives with his two young children and his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) on a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where some crop circles first appear.

            After the usual puzzlement, skepticism, consultation with the local constabulary, and a number of frights, the Hess family realizes that they are under siege from space invaders. They board up the house as well as they can and take refuge in the cellar while the aliens tramp around upstairs and trash the place preparatory to a climactic confrontation.

            The final defeat of the aliens --- and I don't think I am giving anything away --- again comes right out of H. G. Wells's, Orson Welles's, and George Pal's War of the Worlds, but the essential situation, of a family hiding in the basement from a mysterious invasion, belongs with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Both films, oddly, suggest Cold War thinking, a time of bomb shelters, the dual possibilities of nuclear explosion and family implosion, and the failure of trust, which makes the centripetal movement of Shyamalan's work strangely antique.

            The picture's theme of faith and redemption in a rural setting, however, connects it with more contemporary science fiction films, which in recent years tend to deal with religious rather than political concerns, a telling point of difference perhaps between the middle of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.

            In Signs, Shyamalan continues his interest in children and families, mixing the domestic and ordinary lives of the Hesses with an apparently typical accompanying interest in the supernatural. Grieving over the horrible, senseless death of his wife, Graham Hess is an Episcopal priest who has abandoned his faith. When he comes to understand his dying wife's final words, which apply neatly to the alien encounter, his faith revives, enabling him to grasp something of the design of existence, the meaning and purpose of the fear and suffering he and his family endure.

            Some sense of purpose even governs the invasion from outer space, the presence and behavior of the extraterrestrials, the special plight of each member of the family --- his brother and his children all account in some way for something like the mysterious workings of Providence, a world in which everything happens for a reason.

            As he has demonstrated in the past, the director likes to employ actors associated with action movies in more seriously dramatic roles. He used Bruce Willis with some success in The Sixth Sense, and what appeared to be a statue of Bruce Willis in the silly Unbreakable. Here Mel Gibson rather overdoes the stern and anguished Cleric Who Has Lost His Faithand, like most characters in horror flicks, takes a long time to realize that there really is Something Out There.

            On the other hand, Joaquin Phoenix handles the chief supporting role with competence and the two kid actors, Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin, simply sparkle with life, humor, and reality.

            Fans of the classical unities should delight in the tightness of Shyamalan's script, which operates with a careful regard for foreshadowing and the significance of detail that Chekhov would admire. As in any horror film, the camera focuses on small objects, endowing them with a potential for fright and meaning that the actions and characters eventually fulfill. Symbolically speaking, the rifle on the wall in the first scene gets fired by the last scene, demonstrating a rare sense of structure and control.

Signs, starring Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, Cherry Jones, M. Night Shyamalan, Patricia Kalember, Ted Sutton, Merritt Wever, Lanny Flaherty, Marion McCrory, Michael Showalter; written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cinemark Imax; Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

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