Crop failure: Signs comes up short

We are all Pavlov's dogs. We hear M. Night Shyamalan's name, and we begin to get scared. By the time we get to the theater where his new film is playing, we're terrified. When we see the ticket prices out knees begin to knock.

But seriously... When Signs begins, after a trailer for Sweet Home Alabama has lulled you into a false sense of security, the music of James Newton Howard (channeling Bernard Herrmann) behind the opening credits will have pacemakers going off all over the theater.

The question is whether Shyamalan can sustain the anticipation he's created. The answer will vary from one viewer to another. If I could have measured my vital signs, I'm sure I would have found my heartbeat and pulse rate elevated for at least three-quarters of the picture.

As Spielberg proved in Jaws, the horror you imagine is worse than the horror you see. Shyamalan lost me the first time he gives us a good look at one of the aliens he's been teasing us with: it's obviously a guy in a rubber suit. A better rubber suit than the one sported by the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but hardly your worst nightmare.

As an alien invasion flick, Signs is as refreshingly free of Hollywood formulas and clich├ęs as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, but that's only half the story. The rest is about an Episcopal priest, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), who lost faith and left the church when his wife (Patricia Kalember) died six months ago. He's raising their children, asthmatic Morgan (Rory Culkin) and little Bo (Abigail Breslin), who has a thing about water and leaves half-finished glasses all over their Bucks County, Pennsylvania, farmhouse.

Graham's younger brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a former minor league baseball player who was as bad at hitting as he was good at pitching, has moved in to help, but is thinking of joining the army.

Mysterious crop symbols have begun appearing on farms all over the world, most notably in India, but now on the Hess farm where patterns, visible from the air, have been formed by bending, not breaking, large numbers of cornstalks.

Everybody has a theory, both locally and in the media. "Either this is one of the most elaborate hoaxes ever created," an expert says on television, "or it's for real." A radio talk show host believes one incident inspired countless copycats. Merrill blames it on "nerds... who never had girlfriends," while his recruiter sees it as an advance reconnaissance mission in preparation for a major invasion.

As fright spreads, Graham calms Merrill by telling him there are two kinds of people: those in Group One believe in signs– miracles– and are filled with hope when the unexpected happens. Group Two people believe in nothing and are filled with fear.

Shyamalan keeps the tension so high for so long that when he should be increasing it he has nowhere to go, so he slips in a little comedy instead. Most of the climax takes place during an overlong siege where the Hesses are barricaded in the cellar. They– and we– can only imagine what's going on outside.

"It's like The War of the World'!" Merrill exclaims at one point, and that is the story Signs most resembles. The ending, free of Shyamalan's customary surprises, is something of a letdown.

Gibson gives a good performance except for an early comic scene that's amusing but inconsistent with his character. Phoenix is fine, and the kids again demonstrate Shyamalan's skill in working with youngsters. Cherry Jones plays the folksy local police officer, Caroline Paski (Gee, Officer Paski!). The writer-director himself appears in a small but important role that illustrates a problem with the script: the facts surrounding the death of Graham's wife are revealed gradually over the course of the film instead of all at once. There is no apparent reason for this, as again there are no real surprises.

If Signs doesn't live up to our expectations, is it our fault for having those expectations or Shyamalan's for evoking them in us? If Pavlov switched to a different brand of dog food, could he have blamed the dog for not responding?

Then again, maybe we've just had too many warm fuzzy movies lately.