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Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan spins a claustrophobic tale of a possible alien invasion and the movie falls into the continuing mediocrity of the Vista Series DVD rut.  In a curious move, Buena Vista went with a single disc edition for Signs, which is odd considering that Shyamalan’s last film, the less audience friendly Unbreakable, got a flashy 2-disc set.  Why?  Beats me.  Does it matter, in terms of business?  Nope.  Signs remains a best-seller on the DVD charts after a month.

Signs is a good movie, but the main problem I had with it was the advertising.  M. Night Shyamalan is a brilliant writer who has the ability to teach us new things about the supernatural.  With The Sixth Sense it was ghosts.  With Unbreakable it was superheroes.  But anyone who’s looking for a new, creative angle on the subject of aliens should think twice before watching Signs.  It has little to do with aliens, and everything to do with fear and faith.  Like I said, all in all it’s a good movie, but don’t be fooled; Signs is about crop circles like Unbreakable is about train wrecks.

Signs is billed as a scary movie, but it’s not quite as frightening as it is discomforting.  The question Signs asks is:  What do you do when the end of the world seems inevitably close and unavoidable?  The answer: batten down the hatches and deal with it.

Gibson and Phoenix as Graham and Merrill

Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a former man of the cloth who lost his faith after a death in the family.  He lives on a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his two children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) and his ex-baseball star brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix).  The movie gets right to the point -- enormous crop circles (like the kinds that were frequently found in England in the 1980s) suddenly appear in the Hess’ crops, and, soon, all over the world.  Graham is sceptical, but Merrill and the kids start to buy into the alien invasion paranoia after a number of strange sights and sounds pop up around the farm.  Next, the news coverage begins as more signs of an invasion arise worldwide.

This is where I’d normally say “and panic ensues” but that’s another minor flaw with Signs; panic doesn’t ensue at all.  M. Night Shyamalan conjures up all these scary things - the crop circles, the floating lights, and other aspects I won’t ruin - but no one other than the TV news broadcasters seems too concerned about any of it.  And once the really strange things start happening in Bucks Co. (see Chapter 14), the mysterious absence of police and military in the town is a plot hole I can’t get over.

But plot holes aside, Signs more or less redeems itself in the third act, when it finally drops the slow pace and turns into an all-out horror movie.  Everything gets better and more fun in the last half hour. Shyamalan’s directing improves (the basement scene, Chapter 18, is terrifying), as well as the acting, simply because in the third act the actors really have something to act about.

You’ll enjoy Signs if you can get over the initial shock that it’s not really about aliens.  And if you’re looking for a good, original scare, then see this movie simply for the suspenseful third act.

The video quality for Signs can pretty much be summed up in the first main chapter of the movie (Chapter 2, following the opening credits).  This sequence starts out in the Hess house, and the scenes that take place in there all seem to have a somewhat smokey and faded look.  This may be intentional, however, because M. Night Shyamalan is very specific about his color and visual choices in his movies.  The scene then moves outside, and the outdoor scenes look a lot better.  The precious few scenes that take place literally within the crop fields are great, but the wide and overhead shots of the crops suffer from edge enhancement.

Scenes that take place at night are kind of grainy

The only other major thing that bothered me about the video was the final scene (which plays out over Chapters 19 and 20).  Although I think it’s intentional, the final scene is very cloudy.  I remember this from seeing Signs in the theater.  You could say that it helps the suspense of the movie, but sort of expected it to be less murky on DVD.  Ditto for most of the scenes that take place at night (which are also pretty grainy).

The disc features English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks.  The sound in Signs is crucial, especially in the last act, and it’s given a good 5.1 mix here.  But Signs is a very quiet movie.  There’s really nothing loud to hear as it’s all about small noises.  But here, especially in the basement scene, the small noises make all the difference.

The fact that Signs doesn’t use many sound effects puts composer James Newton Howard’s score in the spotlight.  Howard has worked on two of Shyamalan’s previous movies and this is by far his best score.  He creates a memorable, three-note theme that connects all the music in the movie.  I wouldn’t quite chalk it up to Jaws level, but the theme from Signs is definitely one of the highlights of the movie.  I mention this because the music is only thing that is really going make serious use of your speakers. Again, mainly in the last scene, but also during the cool and simple opening credits.

Fans of the movie should be more than satisfied with the extremely in-depth documentary included, but Signs: Vista Series takes a few of the same missteps as Unbreakable.

Making sure things are all clear...

The best feature by far is the near hour-long documentary Making Signs.  It’s divided up into six chapters, which you can view individually or all together.  This making-of covers everything from very early pre-production meetings to the advertising of the movie.  The Effects of Signs is one of the more interesting segments, as it documents director Shyamalan’s first foray into special effects, and it was apparently a bumpy road.  The other highlight is Last Voices: The Music of Signs, which takes us through James Newton Howard’s process of scoring the movie.  Howard had to work with Shyamalan as he wrote the score, and the two seem to have a very funny love-hate working relationship.  (As he watches an orchestra play the uncompleted score, Shyamalan says to Howard: It needs more love!)  A great documentary.

Next we have five deleted scenes.  Graham and Merrill provides a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the movie’s ending, while The Dead Bird (which runs only for 21 seconds) just reaffirms one of the logical points of the movie.  The only keeper here is Alien in the Attic and the Third Story, which runs for 5 minutes and is just as frightening as anything else in the final act.

Storyboards: Multi-Angle Feature is trouble.  A great idea poorly executed.  This feature gives you the ability to watch two sequences, either Graham, the Knife and the Pantry or Graham and Merrill Chase the Unknown Trespasser, unfold either in storyboards or they way it appears in the film.  The problem is that you can’t watch the two angles at the same time.  It’s one or the other.  There should have been a third option, a split-screen angle which would have had both the storyboards and the scene play out simultaneously, like on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? disc.  

Finally, you get Night’s First Alien Film, which is a (very) short clip from a home movie M. Night Shyamalan made when he was a kid.  This is a throwaway unless you’re a die-hard Shyamalan fan (he’s included clips like these on his previous DVDs as well), although this recurring theme in Shyamalan’s DVDs does help to build up a rapport between the director and his audience.

There’s also a fold-out color booklet with a list of the chapters, and detailed explanations of the special features.

Signs is a curious sci-fi movie (I hesitate to even call it sci-fi) that will probably give you, if nothing else, a few good scares in the end.  The pacing is slow and the dialog is a little stiff at times, but it’s something different.  If Alfred Hitchcock made a movie about an alien invasion this would be it.

The video is so-so but the audio and the solid score almost make up for it.  Fans of the movie should be happy with the in-depth making-of feature, which easily upstages the rest of the supplements.  Also, it should be noted that, like the Unbreakable Vista Series DVD, Signs includes no trailers or promotional material of any kind.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing--just not the sort of thing you’d expect to be left off the DVD of a huge summer blockbuster.