[Our Sunday Visitor, August 25, 2002]
The Baltimore theatre was packed the day "Signs" opened. At one point, lead character Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) explains that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe that someone is looking out for us, and those who don’t. He states his own conclusion: "There is no one watching out for us. We are all on our own." All over the theater viewers pulled in their breath, and a few blurted "aw!" in sad surprise. It seemed like the loneliest thing a person could say.
"Signs" is a movie about faith challenged, broken, and restored. You probably thought it was a movie about space aliens, since that’s what ads imply. But the little green men are just a spooky backdrop. The real story hinges Graham, a pastor who lost his wife in a grisly accident six months before and renounced his faith. Though townsfolk still call him "Father," he rejects the title, and later exclaims bitterly, "I’m not wasting one more minute of my life in prayer." This is the heart of the movie, as well as its real surprise.
"Signs" is the most explicit endorsement of faith in a personal God, a God who takes care of us, to come out of mainstream Hollywood in a long time. Director M. Night Shyamalan is a Hindu who attended Catholic schools, and declines name just who this God is, though it’s clear the family and townsfolk are Christian.
(SPOILER WARNING: plot details revealed ahead.) "Signs" is actually a very simple movie, unlike Shyamalan’s complex hits, "Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable." Fans of those films may be disappointed with this one, as they try to guess what plot twists are ahead and discover that there are none. "Signs" is thinner than what we’ve come to expect from this director, though it’s still very enjoyable, well-acted, and the comic moments succeed well.
But what does it mean to say that God is watching out for us? The film’s theology is sweet, but falls short of maturity. Does God’s loving care mean that he will never let anything bad happen to us? That we will never suffer? A quick scan down the lives of the saints eliminates that theory. Graham’s faith is restored when he sees details fitting together providentially: his son had asthma all his life, just for this moment to save him from poison gas. "There are no coincidences," he declares. But he couldn’t perceive the pattern until the story was over; what if we can’t perceive it till heaven?
This warmly God-friendly movie may have the good effect of causing some moviegoers to renew a faith that had lapsed. But if they base that faith on the condition that God make everything make sense to them and turn out the way they want, their faith won’t endure the long haul.
Spy Kids 2
How much would you like a movie to give your kids this message: Your parents are a lot cooler than you think; they’re brave, competent, and smart, and you should admire them. Family is more important than the most glamorous life you could daydream about. Brothers and sisters should love each other so much they’d risk their lives for them.
If your kids went to see the upstart hit, "Spy Kids," when it debuted last year, they not only heard these messages, they probably ate them up. The Bond-type spy movie for the preteen set was not only surprisingly pro-family, it was also colorful, lively, and exciting, and deserved its big success.
"Spy Kids 2" continues the virtues of the first. Again the plot features a mom and a dad who are in love with each other—the simple unit of the human race that is so often missing from children’s entertainment. The dad is not a bumbling idiot, another departure from contemporary cliche. The children who believably hated each other at the start of the first film, work as a team and stick up for each other, overcoming even the distraction of puppy love. The necessity of working at family life is stressed repeatedly. In the first film’s last moments daughter Carmen (Alexa Vega) addresses the camera directly: "Spy work, that’s easy. Keeping a family together, that’s difficult. And that’s the mission worth fighting for."
The sequel adds a few more important themes. Director Robert Rodriguez, perhaps thinking props overshadowed story last time, puts the kids on an island where the only spy tool that works is a rubber band. Gadgets can’t replace using your head, the kids conclude. Characters who announce that there’s no objective right or wrong come around to seeing the flaw in that theory. The Spy Kids make a decision to prevent their own rescue, so their parents won’t fly into danger. "A big sacrifice," says son Juni (Daryl Sabara), and Carmen solemnly agrees, "Family is sacrifice."
Unfortunately, some new elements have crept in that are less savory. Gross jokes, absent from the first movie, are here in abundance and in extreme form, from a "Vomiter" funpark ride that splatters bystanders, to characters dropped in "camel poop" up to their necks. (The young audience made noises of disgust when the characters revealed the substance stuck in their teeth.) In a sad sequence over the end titles, Carmen performs a rock song with sexy hip action and a bare midriff—the actress is only 14, and still has baby fat.
The magic is missing from this sequel overall. The first was charming and lively; this one is rushed and disjointed. The editing is jerky and often fails to make visual sense. It’s like a comedian who’s timing is off. There’s an intriguing moment with a scientist who inadvertently created gigantic animals: "Why do they hate me so much? I created them. Do you think God stays in heaven because he too lives in fear of what he created?" It sounds portentous, but nothing else develops.
"Spy Kids 2" still has more love-your-family messages than a whole kids’ section at the video store, so it remains worth viewing. Just bring an umbrella for the "Vomiter" scene.
If you didn’t brave the crowds to watch "Lord of the Rings" a few months ago, now is the time to rent it. The film is excellent and thrilling—if anything, too thrilling. If the "good part" of a movie is the big action sequence, this movie is one noisy spectacle after another, and little time to get your breath in between. The dilemma was unpreventable; the book simply has way too much story to cram into one movie, and you obviously can’t leave the big parts out. Still, viewers may well wish they could just spend a little more time strolling around the quiet countryside of Middle Earth. If the movie sends them to the book, it will have done a good deed.