Family circle

Movie: Signs

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Our Rating: 3.50

The overblown "Unbreakable" instilled worries that writer/director M. Night Shyamalan's bid for master-of-suspense status may have begun and ended with "The Sixth Sense." (No, I'm not counting his script for the first "Stuart Little.") It's a summertime relief, then, that Shyamalan's "Signs" -- a flawed but well-intended throwback to the creaking-door school of thrillers -- shows him slowly regaining his creative momentum while mounting an admirable effort to rescue the concept of the "event picture" from showy, effects-laden excess.

Set in the humble environment of Bucks County, Pa., the movie approaches a staple of paranormal phenomena -- the fabled crop circles -- with eerie intimacy. The appearance of the ominous symbols on their property is merely one in a series of increasingly bizarre circumstances experienced by widowed ex-pastor Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) and his kin: brother Merrill (Joaquin) and children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). The family pets become unaccountably crazed and indecipherable radio transmissions are heard on (of all things) a baby monitor. Something momentous is about to happen, and its implications may not be limited to Hess and his relations. Instead, the fate that awaits them, they may share with the entire planet.

Shyamalan's script includes an up-front reference to "The War of the Worlds" that contextualizes his decision to tell this tale from the inside out. The comparatively isolated Hesses are limited to monitoring what looks like their impending doom through a TV set they don't always have the fortitude to watch. Penned in with them, we bite our nails through painstakingly crafted suspense sequences, fretting over our communal lot as shadowy forces draw near and psychological pressures mount. (There's even a sly mention of mashed potatoes, the foodstuff that preoccupied the similarly bedeviled Roy Neary in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind.")

Like most crop circles, though, the movie itself has a gaping hole in its center: Gibson's performance. While he's a better actor than Shyamalan's onetime leading man, Bruce Willis, the Aussie megastar lacks Willis' uncanny rapport with children. Neither is Gibson believable as a meek, spiritually lapsed farmer whose defining characteristic is ineffectuality. Likewise, the script's attempts to integrate the mysterious threat with Hess' history of personal tragedy can feel ill-timed and downright silly.

A victory of mood over content, this intermittently effective exercise doesn't have what it takes to single-handedly reclaim the summer-movie playing field for ghostly scratches at the window and raised hairs on the back of the neck. But at least it's a good sign.

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