"Signs"

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I remember seeing my first crop circle on CNN back in the 1980’s. I don’t remember the broadcasters making too much of a big deal about them. They were not the top story you would think they would have been- but the story was more light hearted and left to the end of the half- hour. That didn’t seem to be appropriate, though. Somehow, cable news and other media outlets didn’t know what to do with the crop circle phenomenon. Having these entities just “show up” should have been a bigger story. Even back then I thought that the crop circles were signs that we were on the brink of a mystical if not new biblical era. And the notion that we were living in a time of sorcery, either angelic, demonic or alien caused some fear and subtle mass hysteria and wonder all at the same time.

For those of you who were around at the time and can remember, and for those who were not but can imagine, there was a brief period where the circles were a major subject and topic of discussion about meaning. They were an object of obsession for cultist, religious fanatics and others who thought the crop circles were signs from above. These symbols that could only be clearly seen from the air were thought to be messages, encrypted code from either God, extraterrestrials or some other higher power. Even recently, I read in a “holistic” magazine the link between crop circles and the beaching of porpoises… as if the crop circles were warnings from a more superior force. Even in the light of proof that many of these crop circles are hoaxes, there are many unanswered questions about those proven not to be pranks.

The unsolved mystery of the true nature of crop circles is the Lost Ark, Shankara Stones and the Holy Grail of our time. Yet somehow, many theories about the crop circles exclude God, as if he wouldn’t try and communicate with us in this manner. Nobody understands why God would do something like that or why he would choose that way to get our attention. Somehow, when God flags someone down, it’s been anything from a burning bush, to sending Gabriel down with a giant trumpet to a thundering voice calling someone out by name. I don’t know what would be the modern equivalent to that would be. Perhaps the phone ringing and you answer to hear the voice of George Burns: “Hey, It’s your Ol’ Granddad, Jahova… How’s it been? Hey… Jesus and I were here and wondering if you could do us a favor and get your few billion brothers and sisters together and clean up your acts. Satan is down in the stables of hell and he’s saddling up the four ponies…”.  If the crop circles are messages from God, who knows that they aren’t some hidden message tapping into our subconscious.

The other side of the coin might be these are demonic and doing the same to our psyche.

Signs is many things, a slice of life movie, about a somewhat typical family struggling with the death of the mother/wife while experiencing what could be the end of history. Signs is also about this same family’s struggles as they are overwhelmed by nude extraterrestrial conquistadors bent on capturing to either enslave or eat unsuspecting earthlings. Finally, and most importantly, it’s about a minister who had given up on his faith due to personal tragedy and who wins his faith back once and for all by facing this evil.

As the movie opens, the setting is on a small corn farm in Pennsylvania.... Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a former Minister who has lost his faith after the loss of his wife in a fateful truck crash. One morning he’s unable to hear his daughter or his asthmatic son.  All he can hear are his two dogs barking madly. After running through the cornfield, he and his much younger brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix),  find the kids in the midst of the latest crop circle.  They quickly learn from the television news the circles are appearing everywhere.

Not much of a big deal, really… lets just watch the news and try and get on with our lives… The boy Morgan (Rory Culkin) is having mild asthmatic attacks as a result of his fear, and Bo (Abigail Breslin) insists that all the water tastes stale or contaminated.  Graham and Merrill try to cope with what they think are teenage pranksters messing around the barn. Part of the fun yet frightening aspects of the movie is how the viewer is able to see just enough behind the curtain of this magic and see glimmers of what is really going on.

In the quintessential fashion of all “B movies”, everyone steps into their stereotypical rolls:  the son digging for answers in the strangest places, the young girl trying to be tough but vulnerable and looking for protection, the uncle/younger brother who is in total denial that there is anything really wrong while the father does his darndest to be the rock.  They’re all frightened.  Who wouldn’t be.  Bright lights in the sky over every major city in the world and sightings of creatures is scary enough. Nobody knows how this is going to end, either playing a few notes of a catchy tune with the folks from about the galaxy in a starship lit up like a Christmas tree like Close Encounters, or yelling and screaming like Corporal Gorman: “Game Over, Man… Game over” while Ripley is arming herself against the drooling grown-up chest busters in James Cameron’s Aliens. Either way…life isn’t going to be the same ever again.

There are heavy themes in this movie that are neither glossed over the way other Pop Corn movies do, nor are they heavy handed the way “Oscar contenders” try to do. Instead, it’s casual the way normal people do while watching the television and having a few cans of soda. What is the nature of faith, what is the nature of God and to what extent are we alone are some of the issues touched upon similar to the way it was handled in EARLIER Spielberg films.

In a way I wish more movies about aliens would handle the conflicting notions of God versus extraterrestrial. Are we truly alone, or is there Someone or something looking out after us. Might life really be just a cosmic crapshoot and we are all alone in this universal Titanic where we’re colliding with an onslaught of ubiquitous icebergs and it’s everyone for himself? Signs weaves these questions into the plot in a thoughtful laid back way that would almost garner an Academy Award if they weren’t so uptight.

There are so many little events that help build the tension and the plot while we are able to get to know this family as if they would be us or our neighbors. It’s the kind of directing craftsmanship that we’re familiar with in Mr. Spielberg's films and his influences are flawlessly displayed here in Signs. You jump out of your chair from some of the spooky events, not so much because you’re frightened for yourself but because you’re emotionally invested in the characters. This movie sucked the family and me in and like all good Block-Busters do, I was drawn into the action. In Signs, M. Night Shyamalan picks up the mantle of making pure Pop Corn movies handed down by Steven Spielberg who -  as we all know by now - has moved on to make more serious movies such as Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List. In the event that there is a script co-written by M. Night Shyamalan still floating around for the next Indiana Jones movie… I hope it gets made before it’s too late. Signs proves he has the talent to get it done.

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