Crop circles: real or hoax? M. Night Shyamalan (of the masterful The Sixth Sense and the iffy Unbreakable) stabs at answering that question in the quite good Signs, inspired by patterns found in the cornfields of Pennsylvania. (And yes, it turns out they really do grow a lot of corn up there.)
While you might be expecting a cool-headed mystery about the origins of crop circles, Signs is actually a bizarre mix of V, Independence Day, and Panic Room. Even stranger, it's actually watchable, though at times I was ready to slap Mel Gibson for his stilted performance, which frequently drags down the movie as he pontificates.
The story unfolds on a corn farm where Gibson's Graham Hess (a former minister who has left the church in the wake of his wife's death) raises his two kids with the help of his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). If you're ready to believe that Phoenix (27) is a brother of Gibson (46), you've got the ability to suspend disbelief for what happens next. Eventually crop circles appear, and the Hess's dismiss them as the work of local pranksters, but soon enough the evidence becomes overwhelming: Aliens are coming. When lights appear in the sky over hundreds of worldwide cities, the Hess family boards up the farmhouse and hides in the cellar, fending off the invasion.
After one of the worst examples of opening credits I've ever seen and a lengthy and misleading exposition, I was ready to give up on Signs altogether. Would this be another "why must we fear outsiders?" piece of paranoia, the kind of movie that went out of style during the Red Scare? If aliens are clueless enough to have to draw giant markers all over the world as "directions" for their spaceships, their "superior intellect" becomes circumspect. (And indeed, the more I think about it, the more preposterous the plot becomes.) But Shyamalan soon wisely dumps his crop circle fetish for real thrills and horror when the creepy aliens start showing up in person.
In some of the most inventive and spine-tingling scenes I've ever seen in a sci-fi film, we watch on TV as a home video camera catches a blurry glimpse of an alien at a child's birthday party. When Gibson faces down one of the beasts through a locked pantry door, my skin absolutely crawled. Even if it did look like a skinny guy in green Spandex, I still get the chills just thinking about it.
Masterful use of suspense isn't all the movie has going for it. Phoenix positively owns this movie, acting circles (no pun intended) around his bigger-name co-star and standing out as fundamentally the only character to whom the audience can relate. Eat the kids, I say, as long as Joaquin makes it out alive.
As for the question as to whether Shyamalan has injected his now-trademark surprise ending, the answer is "not really." There is a moment of minor revelation, but it's tangential to the story. In other words, Mel Gibson is not a ghost.
Signs is quite unexpected, not that it's particularly inventive in story (it really is Panic Room on a farm, with aliens), dialogue ("That's how these things were done in the past..."), or character (a kid's asthma creates a crisis when his inhaler is lost... sound familiar?). But it does have that rare quality of being able to creep the living hell out of you, filling a theater of jaded movie fans with screams of terror, all hoping that tonight -- please -- don't let the aliens come after ME.
The Signs DVD features about five minutes of deleted scenes (no more spooky alien critters, alas), a lengthy making-of documentary with commentaries, and another stellar film from Night's youth -- wherein a robot wearing a Halloween mask slowly chases Night through his living room. Yipes!
Daddy needs a shave.