'Signs' for the times

Debra J. Saunders

2/3/2003 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
If M. Night Shyamalan's crop-circle hit movie had been truly depressing -- say, if it was about women who hate their lives -- it might have won a Golden Globe. "Signs," however, wasn't even nominated in the drama category. I hope this doesn't mean "Signs" won't make the best-films list for the Academy Awards, or that Shyamalan will have to settle for recognition in a category like best musical score. Let's face it: "Signs" is too wholesome. Hollywood prefers more violence than can be found in this movie about an alien invasion. It doesn't treat viewers to a host of human corpses and high-tech firepower. The Academy gravitates toward movies that challenge Hollywood's idea of American orthodoxy, like "American Beauty" with its five Oscars, that portrays America the ugly. "Signs" is about real American beauty, the inner souls of regular folk. There's no preaching down to middle America. Instead, there is a real preacher. His name is Graham Hess (played by Mel Gibson), a Pennsylvania corn farmer/minister who loses his faith after his wife is killed in a freak accident -- and is sunk in despair be cause God is no longer in his life. Based on Hollywood's play book, the plot is almost a formula for how not to win an Academy Award. If Shyamalan really wanted to win an Oscar, he should have ended the movie with Hess discovering his true sexuality -- gay, other wise, or why bother -- or selling the farm in order to dedicate him self to a fight against bio-engineered corn. But noooooooooo, Hess has to find his way back to God. Bummer. The conceit here is that Hollywood leans toward films that break the mold. Films featuring Protestant ministers who find God again need not apply. "Signs" certainly breaks the mold. Unlike "Independence Day" or other movies in the standard alien-invasion genre, "Signs" presents the moviegoer with the prospect of an alien invasion, not from the point of view of the president, or top scientists or journal ists, but from that of one simple farm family, with a swing set and two dogs in the yard. The story unfolds as it would for a family living on a farm. First, strange patterns, made by bending cornstalks, appear in the Hess' cornfield. Hess suspects a prank. When the sheriff's deputy (Cherry Jones) arrives, we learn that Hess is a former Protestant minister -- but we don't learn much about what happened to the crops. The adults only discover that the Hess crop circles aren't a hoax when television stations begin broadcasting scenes of tattooed cornfields from around the world. In an action movie, the hero would run to enlist in whatever forces were gathering to fight the coming foe. In "Signs," Hess tries to shield his children from too much information so they don't become terrified. His brother Merrill, a former minor league slugger played by Joaquin Phoenix, watches television from a closet. The moviegoer and Merrill both get their first glimpse of a figure that is clearly an alien at the same time, from a home-movie clip broadcast on television. When a horrified Merrill jumps backward, you feel yourself jump too, at the prospect of an alien visit. There's a slow buildup. There's a glimpse of an alien from afar, of an extraterrestrial hand reaching under the door, of a leg disappearing into the cornstalks. What does it all mean? By the time you actually learn something, you really care. That's why the movie drew big box office, as they say in Tinseltown. Audiences liked the suspenseful unraveling, the sweet kids who miss their mother, the corny family drama of Hess turning again toward -- dare I say? -- God. "Signs" was the fourth-largest selling movie in 2002. Some critics praised it, others couldn't handle the faith-affirming end -- "misbegotten," "an embarrassment" and "just ridiculous" read some reviews. Those critics reflected the true spirit of Hollywood; they simply couldn't bear that there was no Hollywood-knows-best ending that tells middle America what middle America should believe.