The latest M. Night Shyamalan film asks the audience to take a leap of faith — fitting, since it’s about the trials of faith, both in one’s religious beliefs, and in one’s family. Mel Gibson plays “Father” Graham Hess, a priest (of some sort) who has lost his faith after the death of his wife at the hand of a careless M. Night Shyamalan (although few people hung around long enough afterwards to catch his name in the credits). Together with Hess’ younger brother (Joaquin Phoenix), he continues to raise his two children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) who has severe asthma (stupid plot point one), and Bo (Abigail Breslin), who has a pickiness about her drinking water (stupid plot point two).
As if taking care of two children weren’t enough work, Hess wakes up one morning with his corn field full of crop circles. These aren’t merely some prank, as similar circles (or signs) are showing up all over the world. Is it aliens? God? Xenu? I won’t completely spoil it, but Shyamalan does a fair job at building the same creepy atmosphere as he does in both “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”. As the tension grows and grows, you experience a distinct feeling of dread, as if the world is going to end, not just in the film, but for real. Even after the film is over, you still feel weird about the world — it took me about an hour to regain my normal cheery outlook.
What Shyamalan *doesn’t* deliver on is the actual scariness of the film. One expects the buildup to climax into something worthy of its well-developed atmosphere. The same limitation haunted “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” — I never quite felt as frightened as I expected to be. Same here. We get the fantastic lead up, and then it sort of peters out. Still, the signature creepiness stays with you, and that in itself helps the film out.
The other big drawback to this film is its underlying philosophy. I’m not sure what religion M. Night Shyamalan subscribes to, but the film is rife with X-tian propaganda. We learn that Hess hasn’t really lost his faith — he’s just misplaced it. He doesn’t stop believing in God at any time, but he hates and blames God for the death of his wife. Shyamalan would have us believe she died for a reason — that everything happens for a reason, no matter how far-fetched it seems. Even aliens invading Earth might be part of some divine plan. Sure. And that’s fine, but if it takes near human annihilation to help one man regain his faith in God, maybe it’s time to consider that one infidel a write-off. Also, belief in God and belief in aliens seem opposed. Not diametrically so, but enough that co-belief seems impossible, unless you’re part of a UFO cult. So the film, in effect, pits the unreligious against the religious against those who believe in aliens. In trying to satisfy everyone, Shyamalan risks alientating (har) everyone.
Of course, if you don’t mind all that, then the film does a better job than most other films about God/aliens/crop-circles combined. It is emotionally charged, Gibson’s performance is excellent, and the child actors don’t get on your nerves much (Rory Culkin is slightly less annoying as than Haley Joel Osment from “The Sixth Sense”, and looks scarily like his brother, Macaulay Culkin).
Though, there is a point at which you can snap your fingers and the film becomes a letdown. It’s when they’re all huddled in the cellar of the farmhouse. If they stopped the movie there, I’d be pretty satisfied with it. After that, the film begins to fail completely.