Everyone agrees that the last 10 minutes of Signs are crap. So for it to make No 18 in the Total Film Critics Poll of 2002 – and No 2 in the readers’ vote – shows just how good the first 90 minutes are.
Having found new ways to do ghosts in The Sixth Sense and superheroes in Unbreakable, writer/director M Night Shyamalan here turns to aliens. The twist? There are three, actually – and we’re not even talking about the director’s obligatory plot warp at the end. One, the interplanetary visitors are kept largely off camera, reduced to 'what-the-hell-was-that?' glimpses. Two, Shyamalan wrestles the alien invasion sub-genre back from the gleeful, glossy likes of ID4 and Mars Attacks!, going for fear over leer. And three, this is a global invasion pic played out almost entirely within the walls of one farmhouse, with TV news coverage doing the rest.
It’s an idea that’s bold in its simplicity – and one that’s reliant on strong, likeable characters to work. Luckily, the small cast are up to the task, with an unusually restrained Mel Gibson leading the way as Graham Hess, a retired holy man who’s suffering a crisis of faith. Joaquin Phoenix is younger brother Merrill, a worrier of comic proportions, while Rory Culkin and newcomer Abigail Breslin turn in fine performances as the babies of this motherless family.
Some of Sign’s humour is a little too robust, knockabout even, to sit comfortably with the masterful scares, and Shyamalan should have resisted doing a Quentin and casting himself in a supporting role. Still, the director’s ability to conjure up strangled terror from rustling corn, a dropped torch, a blackened basement or a closed pantry door makes up for any niggles. Including that lame ending.