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Film of the Week: Mel Gibson in 'Signs'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 1 (UPI) -- The nerd audience has become Hollywood's most prized market segment, but hotshot writer-director M. Night Shyamalan doesn't care. In fact, in his pseudo-science fiction thriller "Signs," the maker of "The Sixth Sense" goes out of his way to taunt and torment the obsessive geek crowd, perhaps as revenge for their letting his recent ode to comic books, "Unbreakable," fizzle at the box office.

Mel Gibson, playing a former Episcopalian minister turned farmer who has recently lost his wife and then his faith, wakes up one morning to find his two children wandering in a giant "crop circle" that someone or something has carved into his Pennsylvania cornfield.

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If you are a fan of crop circles, which are one of the loveliest forms of folk art to emerge in recent decades, you may be disappointed by the relative drabness of Shyamalan's professionally stomped shapes compared to the intricate designs devised by dedicated amateurs working in the middle of the night.

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Overall, "Signs" has weak special effects. The budget was reportedly only $62 million, and the majority of that no doubt went to Gibson and Shyamalan.

Gibson and his brother, a washed-up minor league slugger played wonderfully by Joaquin Phoenix (the evil Emperor Commodus in "Gladiator"), are soon chasing something unearthly through the corn.

Then, identical crops circles suddenly appear outside Bangalore, India. The brothers try to reassure Gibson's kids that these aren't portents of an alien invasion. Gibson explains how easily people can make them. When the little boy asks what kind of people would work together all over the world to make these signs, Phoenix hisses, "Nerds! Nerds who don't have girlfriends and want to be famous. This is exactly what the nerds want!"

Doing a perfect Drew Barrymore-in-"E.T." imitation, Gibson's adorable four-year-old asks with heartfelt concern, "Why don't they have girlfriends?"

As a space alien movie, Shyamalan's "Signs" is the most aggressively stupid, intentionally ludicrous effort since the Kennedy Administration. This isn't even the "The Twilight Zone." It's "The Outer Limits" on a bad day. Shyamalan gives you aliens who possess the awesome technology to span the unfathomable void between the stars, but who then can't get out of a locked pantry closet.

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If you like your science fiction smart and logical, go see "Minority Report" again. For you, "Signs" is fit only to be "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" fodder.

People who dislike the "science" part of "science-fiction," however, may well love "Signs," which, beneath the dopey sci-fi trappings, is actually an engaging, often funny, and terribly wholesome family drama about loss and faith. It's a chick flick without any chicks.

I'd like to see what Shyamalan could do without any ghosts, superheroes, space invaders, or other blockbuster crutches. The young man, though, is so determined to make more money than Steven Spielberg that it could be years before we'll get that chance to see what he can really do.

As more reports flood in from around the world, the family holes up in their remote farmhouse, using their television as a periscope. Is it going to be a "War of the Worlds" attack or a "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" meet-and-greet?

The movie takes an increasingly spiritual turn as the brothers discuss whether this is all happening for a purpose. Phoenix explains why he believes in miracles. At a party, he was sitting on a couch with a beautiful girl. He leaned in to kiss her, but then realized he had to take the gum out of his mouth. When he turned back, he found she had thrown up all over herself. If it hadn't been for that miraculous piece of gum, he might have been psychologically scarred for life.

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Gibson, however, has become a born-again atheist. Fortunately, God or Karma or Something appears to have arranged this whole alien-landing thing to help him get his faith back.

In this era when Americans seem wary of religion but high on "spirituality," the movie's moral should prove highly agreeable. Everybody ought to believe something, Shyamalan tells us. (What they believe doesn't seem to particularly matter to him.)

The 31-year old Shyamalan is a classic Indian immigrant super-achiever. His story-telling talent and his relentless self-promotion -- rather than use a real actor, he cast himself in a small but important role -- have brought him to the verge of becoming the first major Indian-American celebrity.

Rated PG-13 for a couple of S-words and some mild scariness. It's a joke that this has the same rating as "Austin Powers in Goldmember."

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