ONE APPROACHES THE FILMS of M. Night Shyamalan with the slightly hysterical goodwill of a parent attending a school play. Senses gaping, disbelief suspended a mile high, one so wants the evening to go well. And if clumsiness and mawkishness should rule the hour, well, so what? We'll clap like seals and go home happy that no one flubbed his or her lines or knocked over the scenery. The reason for this, I think, is the transparent sincerity of Shyamalan's effort to entertain. In today's Hollywood, it looks like innocence. Limpidly free of the contemporary vices of deftness, velocity and panache, Shyamalan works hard for his audience, and you can feel it. The carefulness of his settings, the thoughtfulness of his characters, the occasional crumminess of his dialogue--his heavy hand makes us trust him, and trust the gravity of his intent to please and, beyond that, to communicate.
His new film, Signs, for example, begins with a man lurching upright in bed, gasping awake as if forcibly ejected from sleep. The camera skulks through a dim, modest interior and on a wall we see, blazing with inane obviousness, the dust penumbra around the white outline of a crucifix. A crucifix, in other words, that has just been taken off the wall. There's no missing the 10-ton thud of this thematic statement as it lands, but instead of sighing and rubbing my head, I found myself nodding in encouragement, lips pursed. ("OK, I think I see what you're driving at--the nightmare of life in the absence of faith, right? Something like that? And hey, who took that crucifix down anyway? This is heavy stuff! I'm hooked! Keep going?)
Signs is the story of Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a former Episcopalian minister who has lost his religion after his wife's death in a car accident. Graham lives on a Pennsylvania farm with his two children and his hayseed brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). He spends a lot of time staring mutely into the cornfield at the end of his front yard. Its stalks are tall and lush and secretive. Rustling, densely ranked, they seem to be the sentinels of some great mystery, particularly when Graham--investigating the appearance, one night, of a crop circle--catches in his flashlight beam the lissome green leg of an alien visitor, extended La Cage aux Folles-style from between the cornstalks. Graham's dogs go bananas and his solemn little children grow potent with augury, tuning in to alien jabber on their baby alarm and getting "bad feelings." (Children with bad feelings are important to Shyamalan: Who can forget Haley Joel "I see dead people" Osment from The Sixth Sense? Small, pale faces pinched in foreboding, eyes meant for wonder growing dark with doom--Shyamalan hits these notes reliably.) The behavior of the visitors--forming scout parties, committing vandalism--is identified as "probing" by a particularly excellent local Army recruitment officer, a man with the eyes of a conspiracy theorist and a mouth like a half-opened tin of anchovies.
The visitors are clearly hostile, sounding out weakness. Graham's whole cornfield, it turns out, is infested with alien invaders, clucking and chattering at one another as they prepare humanity's downfall. Merrill becomes interested in the news, taking the television into the closet with him so as not to alarm the children. A squadron of unidentified hovering lights has taken up position over Mexico City. Crop circles are appearing worldwide, like sudden planetary hair loss. Populations are panicking. "It's like War of the Worlds," breathes Merrill, in an oddly self-conscious line. (Imagine the James Bond of Moonraker turning to someone and saying, "It's like From Russia with Love!")
Shyamalan, good with dining-room tables and small, drably furnished rooms, is at sea when trying to capture the global scale of events. …