Whether hostile or benevolent, alien landings in the movies are generally treated as communal experiences, a time for human beings to set aside their petty individual concerns and join the world in welcoming or smiting the creatures from another planet. But in reality, most families would ride out an invasion from their homes, siphoning what bits of information they could from television and radio, and imagining the worst from the droning hum of the Emergency Broadcast System. With the action confined mainly to a remote farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania, M. Night Shyamalan's conceptually brilliant Signs plays like a living-room War Of The Worlds, gaining most of its unsettling force from the suggested and the unknown. For the third film running, Shyamalan has infused pulpy genre material with a fresh sense of austerity and weight, first with the somber ghost story The Sixth Sense and its wholly original comic-book follow-up Unbreakable, and now with a science-fiction premise ripped straight from the supermarket tabloids. Until it takes some unfortunate turns into the spiritual, the "signs" of the title refer to a mysterious outbreak of crop circles that begin appearing in spots around the globe, including a Pennsylvania cornfield tended by Mel Gibson and his family. The former town reverend, Gibson repudiated the church after his wife was killed in a car accident, leaving him alone with two children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) and younger brother Joaquin Phoenix, a washed-up baseball prospect turned farmhand. But when the crop circles point to a looming alien attack, Gibson faces another crisis of faith as he and his family bunker down for a possible apocalypse. The heavy religious overtones in Signs are rare for a Hollywood feature, which may explain why Shyamalan feels compelled to hammer them home in every direction, from icons to monologues. (The dark outline left by a cross removed from a wall cries out for a damp cloth.) It doesn't help that Gibson lacks the sincerity and conviction to carry his disillusionment across, perhaps because he's unwilling to break a long habit of being movie-star heroic. But on a purely cinematic level, Signs confirms Shyamalan as an exceptionally supple and intuitive visual storyteller, evoking fear and dread through insinuating camera movements, subtle sound and lighting effects, and canny use of offscreen space. For a big-budget Hollywood feature, the film places an unusually high amount of stock in the audience's imagination; not since The Others or The Blair Witch Project have so many shocks been indirect or kept teasingly out of view. In every sense the anti-Independence Day, Signs is a lesson in the art of withholding information, shining a flashlight's beam into a sea of darkness and hiding its bogeymen in the shadows.
More from The A.V. Club