(2002)3.5Derek ArmstrongIt's kind of amazing that no one had previously attempted a spooky movie about crop circles, given the ominous portent of these unexplained phenomena. M. Night Shyamalan harnesses that unrealized potential and then some in Signs, his fifth and most mainstream release, which makes the much-revisited topic of alien invasion freshly eerie, yet also showcases a heretofore unseen strength in the director's dour oeuvre: humor. Shyamalan actively bucks the trend of films like Independence Day, shunning pyrotechnics and scenes of chaos in the world's capital cities. Instead he focuses on one rural Pennsylvania family, in turn keeping with his trademark emotional intimacy -- which, when it doesn't consume him, allows the audience to experience the crisis with an equivalent sense of mounting anxiety. Shyamalan makes sublime use of news footage as a means of imparting chilling glimpses of alien avidence, rendered hyper-real through the medium; in fact, the director deepens the impact by drawing a visual link to September 11th, in the form of engrossed viewers huddled around televisions, absorbing the unspeakable. Though Signs is certainly an original vision, boasting a full complement of clever yet unobtrusive camera tricks by Tak Fujimoto, it comes with a price. Namely, Shyamalan travels so deep into the psyches of his characters that he sometimes loses the big picture, dwelling on a past tragedy at the expense of the imminent emergency, and becoming a little too touchy-feely. There's also considerable effort to bear fruit from all the foreshadowing -- as a wise musician once sang, it's "signs, signs, everywhere signs." Still, Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix contribute some of the most naturalistic acting of their careers, and Shyamalan has created a gripping cinematic experience that reminds viewers of when being scared was a kind of intoxication.