Mel Gibson has a close encounter with God -- or just a mean E.T.

Signs of Faith 

Mel Gibson has a close encounter with God -- or just a mean E.T.

This time around, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan puts the surprise at the beginning of his film, and it's a subtle, shimmering clue -- one easily missed. Such are the temptations offered by the maker of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and the tantalizing new Signs: We want to believe that what we're seeing isn't quite what's happening.

Just as crop circles appear in a Pennsylvania cornfield owned by the Reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), who has lost his wife and his faith in a six-month period, TV networks across the world broadcast around-the-clock footage of strange lights in the night sky. Crop circles appear across the globe overnight; the earth's population begins to panic, fearing the inevitable end of the world. Then we're given repeated glimpses of chameleonic aliens. Viewed simply as a straightforward alien-invasion picture, Signs is a somber, low-key kick -- an art-house Independence Day.

And that's good enough. Signs blessedly displays a sense of giddy dark humor absent from Shyamalan's previous outings. For much of the film, it appears the director is merely having fun goofing on the genre's paranoid roots. It's the flip side of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as bleak and menacing as Steven Spielberg's movie was mischievous and optimistic. (Signs was coproduced by Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy -- producers of, among other Spielberg movies, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.)

Signs unfolds like sneering parody. Whole scenes appear to have been lifted from Close Encounters, including one involving a family meal (complete with mashed potatoes). Graham's precocious children, asthmatic Morgan (Rory Culkin) and hydrophobic Bo (Abigail Breslin), and his younger brother, a former minor-league slugger named Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), eventually don pointed hats made of aluminum foil to block the aliens from reading their minds. (Shyamalan might be the best director of children in decades.)

Shyamalan also likes screwing with his actors' images, distorting our perceptions of them (and, perhaps, theirs of themselves). Bruce Willis, who used to strip down to his bloodied wife-beater at a moment's notice in the Die Hard spectacles, has twice played the quiet, reluctant hero in Shyamalan's films. Here, Mad Max looks like someone who's never lost his temper. A true believer now bereft of devotion, Graham still has no idea how to get furious ("I'm insane with anger," he uncomfortably and unconvincingly shouts at an unseen intruder), no concept of how to pretend to be something he's not.

When Graham's wife was killed in a car wreck -- never seen but referenced a handful of times in flashback -- he ditched the collar and abandoned his flock. For that, he's racked with guilt, though it's a sentiment never expressed directly. Others notice what Graham too often fails to see. Or does he?

To read Signs as a merely creepy, amusing sci-fi movie doesn't do it justice. This film, like Shyamalan's others, contains only a hint of story; he instead peddles ideas populated by characters. Shyamalan offers copious hints along the way that beneath the familiar, funny surface is a bigger, far more meaningful story than one in which little green men come to earth for harvesting purposes.

It's possible that this "invasion" is Graham's way of working out his relationship with God, his kids, his brother, his dead wife and the man who accidentally killed her. Shyamalan suggests throughout that to hate God is at least to acknowledge the existence of a higher power. In Signs, something comes from above, only it may not be little green men.

Shyamalan's well past his Twilight Zone phase. He's too subtle and brilliant a filmmaker for trivialities; rather, he uses the familiar to make palatable far larger issues of spirituality, faith and one's need to believe in God. That he entertains without proselytizing isn't what makes him a visionary; that he makes you believe is.

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