House Church Central Goes to the Movies

Touchstone Pictures, directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Features Mel Gibson, Cherry Jones, and Joaquin Phoenix. Music by James Newton Howard.

Set in rural Pennsylvania, a farmer discovers a "crop circle" in his field -- only the first of a number of strange "signs" that point to a coming extra-terrestrial invasion. Many reviewers rate the film purely as a science fiction work, as the invader's presence is gradually revealed, lives are lost, and the threat to humanity is finally overcome. Newton's music keeps the viewer suspended in a world of strange and scary expectation, but just how the movie succeeds at this level depends on whether you accept some of the movie�s improbable explanations, such as how the crop circles can be an essential element of such an invasion.

The astute viewer will evaluate Signs on the basis of the deeper story--signs of a very different sort. We learn that farmer Graham Hess's (Mel Gibson) character is a former priest -- a man who has lost his faith as a result of the tragic manner of his wife's accidental death six months prior to the opening scene. (Or is it really accidental? Shyamalan himself suggests that the accident was "meant to be" as he plays the part of Ray Reddy, the man responsible for the crash.)

Graham's rejection of his former title, Father, and his refusal to pray with his family as the crisis deepens alerts us to his serious break with God and with the Church. He tells his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) that "There is no one watching out for us now."

Merrill has his own set of problems, but his rare ability to break home run records in minor league baseball figures incredibly into the family's salvation. He needs a key phrase in order to put that asset into action, and that phrase is revealed during a flashback of the Graham's last conversation with his wife as her life slips away. In the end, it becomes obvious that the prophetic key and its timely use can only be interpreted as an act of God; our hero�s faith returns, he returns to the priesthood, and life starts returning to normal.

I am glad that Shyamalan ("Sixth Sense," "The Village," etc.) decided to pick up a spiritual theme for Signs. Keeping one's faith in the face of personal tragedy is an important biblical theme, and this is a film that demonstrates the providence of God even among those who have given up on Him. But the film is weak in making this presentation--it succeeds best in the telling of the invasion story, which subordinates the hints to the spiritual layer. Watch for the theme question, "What kind of person are you?" Are you the kind who sees signs, see miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Is it possible that there are no coincidences?

Because of the spiritual element, Signs belongs on this list. It is an enjoyable production with an emotional payoff. But the plot's obviously contrived nature is not likely to inspire significant discussion within the church.

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