When the end of the world comes, it’s going to be personal. M Night Shyamalan understands this and sets his War Of The Worlds on a farm in Pennsylvania, where Graham (Mel Gibson), a disaffected minister of God, stays with his children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), and younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix).
Except for the occasional flashback to the night of Graham’s wife’s death, the action remains close to home. It begins with the discovery of crop circles in a field of maze and ends with Morgan’s asthma attack in the arms of an alien.
Unlike futuristic blockbuster sci-fi movies, Signs makes no attempt to computer generate its way through a selection of eye-popping special effects. It is more like The X Files than Independence Day. Graham still suffers from grief and seems lost without his faith. Merrill is an odd combination of the boy-who-had-no-friends and the man-who-can’t-communicate. The kids are the key. They are closer to the ground.
Writer/director/producer Shyamalan keeps it simple. Out there, beyond the safety of small town/big country America, flying saucers congregate over cities. Here, at the farm, they hear noises, see figures silhouetted against the moon, imagining them to be local tearaways.
Once the attack – if that is what it is – occurs, they batten down the hatches and the movie becomes The Birds with aliens. Shyamalan’s control is reminiscent of The Sixth Sense. The less you see, the more you feel. When horror is hinted, rather than exploited, it retains its potency. Look at Jeepers Creepers. Did it stop being scary once the winged demon took flight?
Gibson is subdued. He acts like a man wading through sawdust. He has two expressions, sadness and confusion. Phoenix is more alive to the moment and conveys the frustration of someone unable to comprehend the complexities of fear. Culkin and Breslin are especially good and it is through them that the drama unfolds.
As for Shyamalan, he continues to cut a swathe through mainstream Hollywood, while retaining an integrity and refusing to compromise his vision. He is forgiven a lapse in medical knowledge during the final sequence, because endings, even for him, are sacrosanct.