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Another Take On Night Shyamalan's 'Signs'


Is Shyamalan the next Speilberg? M.Night Shyamalan whose recent movie `Signs’ is a big box office hit, is being compared to Steven Spielberg in some circles. Let us take a close look at the movie and its creator. ‘Signs’ is the second movie Shyamalan made after his huge blockbuster `Sixth sense’. He wrote the screenplay and directed the movie. For the one or two of you who missed `Sixth sense’, it was a tense, slow moving, gripping suspense story about ghosts, with a whopper of an ending that leaves the audience breathless. The movie was so special it demanded repeat viewing, and with minimal advertisement the movie grossed over 600 million dollars worldwide. It made 30 year old American born Indian M.Night Shyamalan, in spite of his silly middle name, which he coined himself to make himself cool, a sensation in Hollywood. A superstar was born.

His next movie `Unbreakable’ in a sense, was anticlimactic. It had star power – it starred Bruce Willis, this time with Samuel Jackson. The movie again dealt with seemingly unexplainable phenomena. It again was tense, slow paced, with Willis acting Zombie like, as he did in the movie like. The movie had a decent ending, in my opinion, but not a whopper of an ending that made two hours of sitting through worthwhile. Questions were raised by critics – Is Shyamalan a one hit wonder? Can he deal with only suspense themes dealing with the supernatural?

Shyamalan answered his critics with his latest movie `Signs’. Alas, the movie again deals with seemingly unexplainable events and is ponderous, tense and very gripping – very much like the previous two movies. The difference this time is that before long, he lets the hero, Mel Gibson and you the audience in on the main secret – aliens have landed in the small Pennsylvania rural town where Gibson lives. They seem powerful and seem intent on doing sinister things. The rest of the movie deals with how Gibson and his family of one brother and two children deal with the impending terror/ danger. His wife is no more, having lost her life in a freak accident, which made Gibson, a man of cloth lose his faith and renounce faith in God.

Having given away the secret, Shyamalan keeps up the tension and our interest a la Alfred Hitchcock, with the question- how are the protagonists going to deal with the impending danger. In this respect, I think he succeeds very well. The gradual build-up of tension was very effective. Shyamalan, it is safe to say, is a student of both Spielberg and Hitchcock and has learnt well from the masters. His slow deliberate pace with muted background music displays the confidence he has in his craft and has already become his trade-mark style.

Two aspects of the movie bothered me. The first one is something I alluded to already – `Signs’ is the third movie in the same supernatural genre, with the same style of story telling. This is close to becoming a parody.

The second thing is his attempt to make the movie multi –layered, which failed in my opinion. In addition to being a scary movie, he wanted his movie about loss and renewal of faith in God. Gibson, once a man of cloth, lost his faith when his wife died in a freak car accident. Strange seemingly unconnected things happen to Gibson and his family which all culminate in the end to save his son from the aliens and, bingo, Gibson rediscovers is faith. This is too simplistic, and not unlike any number of Indian movies I have seen in which the bad guy, usually near the end of the movie witnesses `an act of God’ such as lightning striking a particular house and becomes a good guy. Perhaps, Shyamalan saw the same movies growing up in an Indian household.

Lastly, I have a minor quibble about his decision to cast himself in a minor but key role in the movie. Shyamalan who cast himself in his early obscure movie `Praying with Anger’ must consider himself a decent actor. Someone should tell him that he is not. His presence in the movie is distracting, at best. Yes, I know that Hitchcock appeared in his own movies – but only in the background for fleeting moments and he never opened his mouth.

Getting back to the original question, is Shyamalan the next Speilberg? From a box office stand point, he seems to have done as well or even better than Speilberg, at this stage of his career. Spielberg dealt with the supernatural to appeal to our universal sense of wonder and magic in movies like ET and `Close Encounters’ early in his career. Shyamalan has also dealt with the supernatural to appeal to our universal sense of dread and paranoia, which fit in well with the state of the world these days.

I only hope that he moves on to other things just as Spielberg did and show us that he is capable of more range and imagination. He seems to possess an enormous confidence in his abilities, which I hope will propel him in new directions.

(Ram Ramakrishnan lives in Northboro, MA with wife, Lalitha and two daughters. Recently, wrote and directed two full length tamil comedy plays in MA. Movies are his passion! )

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