Signs (US - BD RA)
Gabe checks out the M. Night film that started our second guessing him...
Father Graham Hess’ (Mel ‘Sugar Tits’ Gibson) faith has been shaken following his wife’s untimely death. He lives out his days in melancholy indifference with his children and younger brother (Joaquin ‘Hair Lip’ Phoenix), until one night his corn crop is mysteriously and methodically flattened by some possibly supernatural source. Soon the whole world is threatened with the possibility of an alien invasion, and Graham is forced to defend his family and rethink his lack of faith.
Signs is what I like to call a ‘Yeah, I Know’ movie. This handle is reserved for films I like that suffer painfully obvious narrative lapses, which I cannot argue against. The biggest lapse here begins with the bottom of the last act appearance of a full screen alien, who is successfully fended off by water and a baseball bat. ‘They mastered interstellar flight, but they’re defeated by water and an ex minor leaguer? That’s stupid.’
‘Yeah, I know.’
Though I could defend the ‘water’ death and say it was actually something in the water (the ‘amoebas’) that actually hurt the alien, to me this narrative lapse (which is pretty much a mimic of the original ‘War of the Worlds’ story) is really just a small symptom of a much bigger problem. After two films which ended with a Twilight Zone-esque twist we had been conditioned to expect more of the same from M Night Shyamalan. I’m not positive what happened to the end of this film, but I’m reasonably sure the final effect wasn’t as the director intended. Even with a lack of twist (which isn’t really the point), Shyamalan pretty much deflates his film’s entire logic and style by even showing us a full screen alien, and by trying to explain anything about them as characters.
The rest of the film works because the aliens are boogymen, and like the zombies of George Romero’s Dead films ( Signs owes a ginormous debt to Night of the Living Dead), they’re simply the bugbear that initiates the human drama. They’re walking allegories. Signs is actually a logical extension of Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, with the exception of the twist ending. All three films introduce a supernatural problem (ghosts, superheroes, aliens) as a means to deal with understandable human issues (loneliness, fear of social impotence, loss of faith). Looking back, as I said in my Unbreakable review, these three stories are increasingly sappy and emotionally placating, but up until those last few unsatisfactory minutes, Signs is an emotionally satisfying film, with successful arcs for the lead and even most of the supporting characters, even if their subtext is screaming “look at me” the entire runtime.
For those of us less interested in emotional arcs and consistent storytelling Signs packs a suspenseful punch, and some spectacularly funny dialogue. The Sixth Sense is Shyamalan’s best film all around, and Unbreakable is my personal favourite, but it’s hard to argue against calling Signs the writer/director’s most entertaining feature. The suspense isn’t a surprise, but up until Signs the Shyamalan’s films hadn’t been particularly funny (though not for lack of trying). The rib tickers offered up mostly by Joaquin Phoenix add needed levity to the invasion situation, yet Signs isn’t a goofy film like, say Independence Day.
It appears that Disney is trickling out their Shyamalan catalogue in order of popularity on Blu-ray disc, though you’d still think that the impending release of The Happening that The Sixth Sense would be a better option, but I digress. Like the Unbreakable Blu-ray release, Signs looks pretty good in high definition, though it isn’t a particularly remarkable release. Signs was Shyamalan’s reunification with director of photography Tak Fujimoto, whom the visually dependent director had worked with very successfully on The Sixth Sense. If the film is anything, it is good looking.
I made a direct comparison to the original DVD release, and came away with one simple observation—there is a big difference in compression artefacts between the two releases. The DVD release was especially noisy during the all too common darker sequences. This release is much more consistent, and the present grain and noise is a lot finer. Otherwise the two releases are pretty comparable. This 1080p presentation is pretty grainy in the dark sequences for a hi-def disc, though the well-lit scenes are pretty sharp. Signs is a visually impressive film, but it isn’t a very colourful one, so hi-def’s vibrancy is kind of lost in the transfer. Besides a few much older features I’ve crammed in this machine, this is the most artefact plagued Blu-ray transfer I’ve seen. The issue isn’t constant, but pretty obvious, as is some nominal edge enhancement during outdoor sequences.
Again, as per my usual disclaimer, I am currently incapable of uncompressed PCM listening, but I was able to enjoy the 6.1 Dolby Digital track included here. Compared to the DVD release there isn’t a lot of difference, but the overall compression appears (audioppears?) to be cleaner. Shyamalan is a very audibly clever filmmaker, and Signs may be his finest achievement in the area. The director's world is a relatively quite one filled with aggressively heightened sound effects, ensuring that more or less every creak of door or bend of corn stalk is just about the most intense thing you’ve ever heard. The centre channel is robust and clear, while the surround and stereo channels produce proper emersion. James Newton Howard’s score is simply striking, probably the best in Shyamalan’s short career. The opening credit overture is incredibly tense and sharp, recalling all the best Bernard Herrmann thriller scores. The ascending note theme is a keeper too.
Like the Unbreakable, and most other Disney catalogue Blu-ray releases, this one features zero new extras. Come to think of it, I’m actually surprised there wasn’t ever a Signs DVD double dip.
‘Making Signs’ is a six part behind the scenes featurette. It’s funny to watch the extras from The Sixth Sense to Unbreakable to Signs, because you can actually see Shyamalan’s increasing pretension. Between the director and producers talking about the bigger ‘meanings’ and ‘subtext’ behind the film, you might want to tear your hair out. The first part or the featurette is brimming with pretence, and a distinct lack of humour concerning the project.
The general ‘making-of’ stuff is a compact but informational, though there’s still a bit self important in the tone of the interview segments. It’s strange that Shyamalan refused to use digital effects for his crop circles if he was just going to CG his monsters, and why are final creatures never as cool as the pre-production sketches? There are some very funny moments during the exploration of the marketing campaign where Shyamalan lays out a bunch of rules that The Happening’s campaign has shattered to pieces. All in all the featurettes run just under an hour.
This is followed by five deleted scenes, all presented in non-anamorphic, standard definition, and stereo sound. These are all good cuts, which would’ve hindered the film’s deliberate pacing. In total they run about seven and a half minutes, and are followed by two storyboard-to-final-film comps, with alternate audio options, and an excerpt from Shyamalan’s first alien movie. I never bothered with The Village and Lady in the Water on DVD, so I’m not sure if Night continued this tradition of including childhood films.
I hadn’t really stopped to think about how much Signs and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake share in common, probably because I haven’t watched Shyamalan’s film since its initial DVD release. Both films are attempts at bringing deep intimacy and personality to the ‘50s alien invasion standards, both films feature top form performances from big name actors that have since diminished in the public respect, and both are successful narratives until the very end (though both are effectively taken from the original ending to the original War of the Worlds novel). Being a sort of de facto protégé of Spielberg, it’s likely a great comfort to Shyamalan that he beat the beard to the punch on this one. War of the Worlds is the more spectacular film and the darker film, but Signs is the more amusing, personal, and uplifting. A bummer of a finale does dampen the effect, but Signs is a good movie overall.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 3rd June 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: PCM 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English HoH, French, and Spanish
Extras: Making of Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Storyboards, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Cherry Jones, Patricia Kalember, M. Night Shyamalan
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi and Thriller
Length: 106 minutes
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