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Signs

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  • noelbotevera
    Little green men Noel Vera M. Night Shyamalan s The Sixth Sense featured a nicely intense performance from a child actor, some creepy atmospherics, and a
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 29, 2002
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      Little green men

      Noel Vera

      M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" featured a nicely intense
      performance from a child actor, some creepy atmospherics, and a neat
      twist ending that makes you want to sit up and applaud for, oh, all
      of two seconds. "Unbreakable" I found more interesting because
      Shyamalan had shrugged off his mainstream appeal and started to show
      his true colors: he's a comic-book freak, and he takes his
      superheroes as seriously as, well, spending the entire budget of a
      major motion picture production creating one of them.

      Shyamalan's latest--where Mel Gibson and family find funny going-ons
      in the middle of their cornfield--shows no, uh, sign whatsoever of
      him apologizing for his career to date. His first film was a hit,
      his second an interesting failure (though maybe not to his eyes); he
      is on to something, he believes, and in "Signs" he wants to make
      believers of all of us.

      Shyamalan can be effective. He takes a page or six from the TV
      series "The X-Files" and from Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the
      Third Kind" --particularly the sequence where aliens intrude into
      Melinda Dillon's house--and presents them to us without any apparent
      embarrassment (a little tarted up, of course--even in "Sixth Sense" I
      thought he was too fond of over-orchestrated music and big "boo!"
      moments). He's not quite on the level of Spielberg--whose use of the
      camera and of editing, particularly in early films like "Close
      Encounters," was sheer joy to watch--but he's canny enough to hide
      such shortcomings with bits of odd humor and some rather clumsy
      characterization.

      Just how odd his humor is is worth noting--when someone, for example,
      recognizes Joaquin Phoenix as a famous former baseball player, he's
      asked: "how come the girls don't lick your toes?" A young woman
      demands to confess to Gibson (he's probably, though it's never stated
      clearly, a lapsed Episcopalian), and they argue over whether or
      not "douche bag" is a curse word (Gibson decides that it is). I
      don't know if it's his multicultural background, but Shyamalan's
      dialogue tends to make you think of someone who hasn't quite mastered
      English yet, and uses this as a source of jokes.

      The characterization is equally odd if not odder. Joaquin Phoenix
      lives with Gibson, and for the longest time--long enough for the
      term "longtime companion" to pop up in my head and for me to applaud
      Gibson's finally getting over his longstanding antipathy towards
      homosexuals--someone pointedly thanks Phoenix for coming to stay with
      his "brother" (not gay--check; still a homophobic douche bag--
      check). To his credit, Gibson gives the most appealingly self-
      effacing performance he's ever given in recent years; Phoenix, on the
      other hand, has always been interesting, and here he doesn't
      disappoint. Some sparks fly between Gibson and a police officer
      (nicely underplayed by Cherry Jones), but nothing much comes out of
      this (Shyamalan's films seem as chaste as Disney pictures). The boy
      (Rory Culkin) is quite good; the little girl (Abigail Breslin) quite
      eerie.

      I appreciate the humor and odd characters, but there are times when
      it feels like the storytelling isn't just odd, but suffers from a
      serious disconnect; Shyamalan still has much to learn. When an
      intense confrontation erupts between Gibson and Culkin over dinner,
      you can't help but go: "huh?" Too little of the tensions on display
      were even hinted at; before this, the family seemed like a big warm
      happy--maybe a little sad, but nothing really ugly boiling away
      beneath the surface. The little girl is perhaps a touch too eerie; I
      keep expecting her to turn out to be one of the aliens (the dog
      barking at her suggested this to me), and I felt more than a little
      cheated when she stayed firmly human (though still odd, very odd).

      Less forgivable is the level of intelligence displayed throughout the
      film (those who haven't seen the picture may want to skip the next
      three paragraphs). Gibson receives a big clue from no less than the
      director himself (in an amusing Hitchcockian cameo) who informs
      Gibson that the aliens--"seem to have a little trouble with water"
      (water was Bruce Willis' weakness too in "Unbreakable"--does
      Shyamalan hold some grudge against the stuff?). Gibson goes on to
      ask for a vote: should they stay in the house, or move near the
      lake? He's outvoted; more than that, he sticks with the vote,
      without much of a struggle (he doesn't even tell them "well, the
      man's had a run-in with one of the things, so he must know something
      about it..."). As far as house sieges go--and they are featured in
      quite a few films: "The Birds," "Night of the Living Dead," "Straw
      Dogs" "Panic Room" (Shyamalan, incidentally, quotes from each
      extensively)--the one in "Signs" is pathetic: as soon as the aliens
      come knocking they go straight for the basement. Not much of a
      struggle, no hint of a strategy; one of them even forgets (you could
      see this coming a mile away) a crucial inhaler.

      If you think the human defenders are silly, you should see the aliens-
      -they avoid using large-scale weapons, we are told, because they
      don't want to ruin the Earth's environment. Only ground troops, and
      only hand-to-hand combat. Hand-to-hand! We're talking about World
      Domination here, not a soiree (they could have asked Gen-X writer
      Jessica Zafra for a few pointers). Sure they have poison gas, which
      they use to kill "many" (we're never given precise figures, or even
      estimates), but think about it--gas is such a clumsy weapon,
      imprecise in delivery and unbelievably difficult to store and handle
      (the aliens, conveniently, fart it out of their fingernails). A
      simple ray gun would have made the invasion that much more credible;
      it would also have ended the movie an hour too early (from "it's
      started!" to "we surrender!" in a matter of minutes). I personally
      would have liked to see them use some kind of alien kung fu--but
      brave as Shyamalan is on insisting on his priorities, apparently he
      isn't that brave...

      ...neither does he have good timing. Part of the appeal of "The X-
      Files" is its sense of approaching dread, the feel you get of
      something vast and apocalyptic involving aliens, paranormal phenomena
      and government conspiracies coming nigh. This dread is the nerve
      that the TV series touched, the emotions aroused inextricably tied to
      the close of the previous millennium. Now that we're two years into
      the next millennium, and "The X-Files" series is ended (a significant
      sign right there), all those fears and anxieties we suffered counting
      down to the end of 1999 have all come to seem...well, irrelevant.
      UFOs will...conquer the Earth? The world is...coming to an end? It
      all seems silly and absurd now, like antics in a New Years' Eve party
      seen from the morning after. The only issues that hold any urgency
      for us nowadays are the evils of government--and more on corruption
      than cover-ups and conspiracies...

      Defenders of the film say "it's not about aliens, it's about faith."
      At one point Gibson explains to Phoenix "there are two kinds of
      people in the world:" the first kind believes in God and signs (or,
      if you like, superstition and nonsense) the second believes in
      nothing but blind coincidence. The case Shyamalan makes with regards
      to faith, however, isn't too convincing (yes--pinned to a tree by a
      pickup truck, I too can prophesy six months into the future...).
      Presenting this material as ultimately a struggle to achieve
      spirituality isn't enough; the material (i.e. an alien invasion) has
      to be believable in the first place.

      Shyamalan should really take a hint from one C. M. Kornbluth, one of
      the most darkly ironic imaginations in science fiction: his short
      story "The Silly Season" has aliens creating alarming illusions every
      year, year after year, such that when they finally do attack,
      everyone's too skeptical to even bother to resist ("The Boy Who Cried
      Wolf," anyone?). Simple and plausible--almost frighteningly so; the
      fact that the aliens manage to exploit a weakness in our very nature
      is the story's real sting. It's probably a safe bet that Kornbluth
      is the second kind of person Gibson talked about--someone perfectly
      capable of saying out loud that a good-looking reverend, a goofy ex-
      baseball player, and two kids wearing aluminum helmets are not going
      to win against a real-life alien invasion. Shyamalan may insist
      on "Signs" being basically about belief; all I can say is, he's
      succeeded in making a skeptic out of me.

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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