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It's too early to don Spielberg's mantle

``Signs" has not lived up to the pre-release hype nor is Shyamalan the next Spielberg. At least not yet, argues RATNA RAJAIAH.

``I DON'T care about box office. I want to be a phenomenon where audience feels some connection."— Manoj Night Shyamalan.

To tell the truth, I would have probably never watched Manoj Night Shyamalan's ``Signs." For two reasons, both of which have nothing to do with a preconceived notion of it being either a good or a bad film. The first reason is a totally illogical, inexplicable one and has to do with the fact that some films, like some books, even people, ask not to be acquainted with. For no ostensible reason — because you have almost no knowledge of it except for a glimpse of the publicity material or a glance at the reviews — but because there is something about it that makes you want to walk past, pass up. ``Signs" was one such film. The second reason is that there was too much hype around the film. Culminating in that gushing cover story of Newsweek that proclaimed, that by the dint of this film, Shyamalan was ready to be dubbed the next Spielberg. (And all the while I thought that the seat was already booked for Shekhar Kapur.)

Naturally, the Indian media picked that up, ecstatically echoing it like faithful puppy dogs and rightly so, because how many Indians even make it to Hollywood, let alone personally get not one but two Oscar nominations. I have no objections to the hype. But I knew that the high decibel noise of it would distract and muddy my own personal experience of the film. So, I didn't see ``Signs" and would have probably never seen it had it not been for a very interesting news item in the Newsweek that I stumbled upon just a month after that ``the next Spielberg" cover story. Titled the ``Hollywood — The Murky Mathematics of Movies," it talked about how several movies that were hailed as huge blockbuster hits at release actually had as much as a 50 per cent drop in theatre collections in the second week itself. And yet continued to be considered blockbuster hits in spite of this. ``Signs" was one such film, dropping by an astounding 51 per cent in Week two.

So how did the math work out? Apparently what happens is that the studio concerned, riding on the pre-release hype, releases the film simultaneously in as many as 6,000 theatres. ``So by the time advertising bombarded moviegoers realise a new film isn't very good, the studios have already banked a fortune." Ah-ha, I thought, could it be that ``Signs" was not really what it was cranked up to be and that coming of ``the next Spielberg" was actually the result of a very carefully orchestrated campaign? Though, in all fairness, it was quite possible that beyond the fogs of the hype, Shyamalan had really made a great film and thus proved that he was a filmmaker prodigiously talented enough to take on Spielberg's mantle. There was only one way to find that out. I had to see ``Signs." And I did.

And? Well, first the good news. For one, the superb, understated performances by the entire cast of four, especially the two children, Bo and Morgan, who are left to be and speak the way children do, whittling everything down to its bald, uncluttered and often frighteningly truthful core.

Then there is the film's wonderfully taut, superbly reigned in screenplay, which Shyamalan expertly winds around a maze of surprises, each of which are made to pop out so silently and so suddenly that you gasp and then quickly shush yourself because everything around you and inside you and the film is so hushed, so still, almost gagging on the tension. And that's the single most memorable quality about the filmI remember reading somewhere that in ``Signs," Shyamalan has spectacularly demonstrated that making truly scary films is in knowing what to leave unsaid and unseen. And he truly has. The terror is in the silences where we would have expected screams. The fear is in imagining what is on the other side of that tightly shut door, and in what you cannot — and almost never — see but only hear its dreadfulness coming closer. You know it's something hideously alien — yes, a deviation from Spielbergdom where aliens are usually cute, friendly albeit funny-looking fellas — but something that remains a deliberately shadowy figure that you fleetingly glimpse only just thrice in the film. So is ``Signs" a film about aliens? (And therein the first point of comparison with Spielberg?) Ah, now there's the rub. I'm not quite sure what the film is really about.

Yes, there are aliens and crop circles and Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) who is a farmer and once was a priest but no longer is, abandoning his faith and the church after the senseless and brutal death of his wife in a freak road accident.

(It takes you a while to figure out the priest bit and you keep wondering why everyone except Hess's children keeps calling him ``father" and why he keeps telling them not to.)

Hess lives with his two children, Morgan and Bo (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) and his younger brother (Joaquin Phoenix), a former baseball player on a sprawling farm, which is where the crop circles first appear.

Naturally, if there are crop circles, can aliens be far behind? They aren't. And till this point, you are happy. Of course the guy's the next Spielberg, he's got you by the cockles of your heart, hasn't he? Until he starts to layer in something else. Something that asks you to gaze at... er... if not your navel, then at the crop circles and ponder about things like the existence of God. Who, though he works in strange ways — and what could be stranger than aliens who talk to you through baby monitors — is always a loving, kind God who always leaves the place strewn with ``signs" that will ultimately lead you out of the Bad Times into the Good, only you have be willing to read them. The way Shyamalan innocuously dots the first half of the film with puzzling, seemingly unrelated things and then so effortlessly connects them all up in the second half to become a Divine Plan is a stunning display of a delicate, deft wizardry of screenplay. But as a message in a bottle, there is something too pat, too unsophisticated, even childish — too American? In the way Shyamalan deals us deeply philosophical issues and answers them.

The layering in of a simplistic battle between Good (Hess & Co.) and Evil (the aliens, heralded by crop circles) ruins what could have been a superb lasagne of a sci-fi that has enough — as we used to say in college — of the ``senti stuff" and that would have been the true hallmark of a Spielberg heir. (Remember E.T.?) But alas, ``Signs" is a fuzzy hotchpotch — the mysterious mixed up with the mystical, science fiction teetering on the edge of spiritual and finally tumbling in. And it needn't have been.

The allegory of aliens and crops circles as Evil is difficult to swallow and the moral that there are no coincidences, only divine messages that you can decipher only if you have faith is delivered in a way that makes you gag a little with its trite syrupiness. But the biggest disappointment is the last scene of the film.

The alien is destroyed, Hess &Co. is all set to ride into the sunset and we out of the theatre with a warm glow somewhere near the sternum... It's the inside of Hess's bedroom.

Everything is still, but this time, we know it's a peaceful stillness, soft and beautiful as the morning light that has painted the room in pools of shade and light.

The half-open bathroom door slowly opens a little more and Hess emerges — also slowly — buttoning up his cuffs and half-turned away from the camera so you can't see the front of him. He moves to stand in front of the mirror on the wall. And then you see it. The white clergyman's collar around his neck, starkly contrasted against his black shirt. The Prodigal Son returneth. The End.

So, is Shyamalan the next Spielberg? I don't know about you but I think I'll wait around a bit...

P.S: Do we ever find out how the aliens are linked — if at all — to the crop circles? Nope, but maybe in ``Signs II"?

(The author can be contacted at ratna_rajaiah@vsnl.com)

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