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Length:1h 46mins
Cast:M. Night Shyamalan, Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Cherry Jones

The worldwide phenomenon of "crop circles" -- supposedly engineered by visiting aliens -- provides a suitably eerie jumping-off point for the latest spine-tingling thriller directed by M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense). Signs is something of a tour de force for Mel Gibson, uncharacteristically understated in his portrayal of a recently widowed minister whose isolated farm is the scene of inexplicable events. The sudden appearance of crop circles, followed by nocturnal visits from unseen strangers, unnerves the minister, his children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin), and his younger brother (Joaquin Phoenix). They choose to remain barricaded inside their run-down farmhouse to defend it against invasion by extraterrestrials. In both his screenwriting and his direction, Shyamalan studiously avoids the sensationalistic trappings of most alien-invasion movies; in fact, as the opening reels unspool, it's not at all clear that there are aliens in the vicinity. But as the evidence mounts, so does the tension, and the film's second half dispels any ambiguity while convincingly portraying the claustrophobic terror that grips the protagonists. Gibson is superb as the embittered preacher whose loss of faith initially leaves him ill equipped to deal with the crisis, and Phoenix is very nearly as good as the underachieving brother who rises magnificently to the occasion when his loved ones are imperiled. Shyamalan's directorial technique is refreshing in its simplicity: His camera moves aren't flashy, he doesn't rely on special effects, and his measured pacing gives viewers time to absorb each scene for maximum emotional impact. Moreover, he realizes that what you don't see is often scarier than what you do see. Such restraint, so unusual in today's genre films, is largely responsible for making Signs one of the most effective horror/sci-fi movies of recent years. Shyamalan supplies a feature-length commentary for the DVD, which also includes deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes featurettes. Ed Hulse

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