If Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay were given charge of 2002’s Signs, they would’ve delivered a brainless action ride involving a cast of stereotypes battling a conventional alien enemy. Under the guidance of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, however, Signs is anything but conventional or dumb. Eschewing a blockbuster approach, Shyamalan has used the possibility that we’re not alone in the universe as a foundation on which to construct an engaging character drama with messages about religious beliefs and faith. It’s essentially the low-key flipside of Independence Day, and the film’s proceedings are probably closer to what the experience of an alien invasion would be like for most families around the globe. Moreover, Signs is one of the most effectively bone-chilling motion pictures of the noughties – a horror flick in the classical Hitchcockian mould where less is more.

Set in a small Pennsylvania farming community, the story concerns former reverend Graham Hess (Gibson). After having tragically lost his wife, Graham no longer has faith in anything, and is left to raise his two kids Morgan (Culkin) and Bo (Breslin) with the help of his brother Merrill (Phoenix). One morning, the family awakens to find chilling crop circles in their cornfield. While Graham and local police officer Caroline (Jones) are willing to dismiss the occurrence as the work of pranksters, similar crop signs begin appearing across the world at a rapid rate. As the phenomenon grips the world and consumes Graham’s family, strange events continue to transpire, supporting the nerve-jangling notion that extraterrestrials may have travelled to Earth seeking to take over the planet.

Shyamalan has a gift for pacing and precise camerawork, both of qualities of which are evident in Signs. Each frame is meticulously-composed and interesting, and the narrative shifts forward at an ideal pace. The pacing is admittedly a tad slow, but it’s directly because of this slow build that Signs is so terrifying since we’re lulled into a false sense of security. Shyamalan is a master of suspense and tension – we mostly see just ominous shadows or limbs throughout the film, which makes the big reveal such a spine-chilling moment. Indeed, a scene in which Merrill witnesses news footage of one of the aliens is a complete “shit your pants” moment, and Merrill’s gaping response of terror is contagious. Laudably, Shyamalan accomplished goosebump-inducing scares like these without lazily resorting to blood or gore. James Newton Howard’s pitch-perfect musical score also deserves praise. The compositions are so simple and low-key, yet that’s exactly why they work to such an unsettling extent.

Another key strength of Signs is its sense of humanity. Shyamalan is the kind of director who can scare you one minute and make you cry the next without feeling manipulative. For instance, a late scene observes the characters sitting at a dinner table believing that the end is near, and it becomes almost too poignant to bear. Later, following an extremely intense scene, Shyamalan cuts to a flashback illuminating the affecting events on the night when Graham’s wife was killed. It’s a low-key scene full of dialogue, yet it’s emotionally fatiguing. Additionally, the film has a slight sense of humour which prevents it from becoming serious to a drab extent. If there’s a problem with Signs, it’s that the digital effects a tad below-par. The alien design is brilliant, but the CGI giving them life is iffy, and a late scene loses some of its effectiveness due to this. While the FX aren’t terrible per se, they are too obvious, making them feel out of place in a film otherwise concerned with patience and restraint.

Say whatever you will about Mel Gibson’s controversial personal life, but you cannot deny that he is one fantastic actor. Signs spotlights one of Gibson’s best and most nuanced performances to date – in every frame he looks 100% focused, and there’s never a line or a moment exhibiting any degree of artificiality. Gibson also carries a believable, effortless rapport with Joaquin Phoenix, who’s just as impressive as Merrill Hess. Many years separate Gibson and Phoenix, yet it’s easy to buy them as brothers. Against all odds, even the child actors are excellent here – Rory Culkin and a pre-stardom Abigail Breslin (who was 5 years old at the time of filming) are exquisite. Shyamalan’s strong point with actors is his ability to strip the Hollywood out of them. Thus, the performances here are not about showboating or Oscar-baiting – instead, the actors all seem real.

Shyamalan is renowned for being the master of twist endings, but Signs doesn’t strictly adhere to this trademark. While the climax brings about a revelation, it’s not a twist – instead, the ending ingeniously ties together several earlier plot points in an unexpected way that strengthens the whole story’s reason for occurring. With this thoughtfulness in the screenplay, Signs is in no way disposable or forgettable. It’s just a bonus that this enthralling film will literally creep the living hell out of you and will coax screams of terror out of the most jaded filmgoer. Without a doubt, Signs is an instant classic with infinite replay value.

9.1/10