In the 1970s, Steven Spielberg had the market cornered on films about ordinary Middle Americans put into extraordinary situations, usually involving sharks or aliens. Then he got caught up in his obsessions with special effects and World War II, leaving the field wide open for a successor. Enter M. Night Shyamalan, a young film student who, like me, grew up on Spielberg's Close Encounters.
Shyamalan is smart enough to remember why Spielberg's early work resonated so well with audiences, and talented enough to revive that feeling with his own films, even if his visual style owes more of a debt to Stanley Kubrick. In fact, Shyamalan may have succeeded where even his mentor failed (see A.I.), in marrying Spielberg's warm humanism with Kubrick's chilly gloom.
In Signs, Shyamalan returns to his now-familiar formula of taking a pop culture/sci fi genre (ghosts in The Sixth Sense, superheroes in Unbreakable, aliens here) and using it as a backdrop for deeper themes about loss and redemption. He once again centers his story on a broken man (Mel Gibson, nicely underplaying it for once as a farmer and former minister) who has lost his wife – in this case, the woman died in a traffic accident six months before the story begins – and learns to bond with his loved ones as he deals with unforeseen and incredible events (crop circles in the cornfields around his farmhouse, which may or may not portend an alien invasion).
I feel that, in Signs, Shyamalan is more successful in plumbing the depths of his ideas than in his previous films. At 31, he's still not yet able invest his deep themes with the wisdom that comes only with age, but he is clearly maturing. It will be interesting to see if he can continue to grow with his work and wean himself from genre conventions for future projects, or if he's going to start running in thematic circles, using the same formula only applying it to, what next? Robots? Mind readers? Clones?
For now we have Signs, which is a worthy piece of summer entertainment: quiet, scary (sometimes unbearably so), thoughtful, and not reliant on special effects or big money shots to make an impression. In fact, Signs owes more to George Romero's original low-budget Night of the Living Dead than to Close Encounters, and although the climax feels a little, well, anti-climactic, Signs still satisfies on an intimate, human level.
This could be Shyamalan's ultimate triumph: no matter how much money he makes or how famous his stars, his movies still feel like independent films, with a small number of characters, lots of dialogue, only a few locations, deliberate pacing, and nothing exploding. That millions of people are willing to see these films and enjoy them does offer a ray of hope in a field full of bloated sequels and pre-tested, committee-approved garbage.