Does everyone remember when M. Night Shyamalan was a relevant filmmaker? The guy did a lot with his first film, and everything since then has seemed to decline in quality and popularity and to a degree has become a little more self-indulgent, especially in the case of Lady in the Water. Having said that, I'm wrapping up a mini film festival of M. Night Shyamalan's first three films with Signs, and I've got to say that this film hit a few more emotional chords than the others perhaps did, whether it was due to Mel Gibson's performance as the former Reverend Graham Hess or the impressive and sometimes powerful interaction between Graham and his oldest child Morgan (Rory Culkin, Igby Goes Down). This is a movie that delves much more into personal beliefs than Shyamalan's other films have, and it makes for a more personal experience, particularly with the isolated life that Graham and his family live.
But there are other details in Shyamalan's storytelling that are given more exposure, notably a pretty dry (but funny) sense of humor, diffusing moments of tension when needed. When Graham and Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix, Buffalo Soldiers) storm out of their house to confront what may be pranksters (or it may be alien scouts), it's actually more funny than tense, done with some pretty good design involved. Scenes like this are a mix of the storytelling and an understated comic presence that Gibson brings to a film.
The third act of the film, for which Shyamalan has developed a reputation for, is pretty anti-climatic. I mean, you get to see an alien or two, but they should be better than they look, at least for an M. Night Shyamalan film. Overall, I did think the film was good, but I am not as big a supporter of this film as my wife is. She loves it and thinks that it's one of, if not the best movie she's seen. So here's her cameo appearance in my review to tell you why you absolutely need to see this film a few times, if you haven't already:
(The thing about Signs is, "it completes me." Well, it completes itself. Some people may say it's too hokey, or unrealistic that things would fall into place that easily in the movie, or in life for that matter. I'm a miracle girl. Things happen for a reason. I think that may be why I enjoyed the movie so much. It's a smart, suspenseful, enjoyable film that has an amazing script behind it. And come on ladies, how much do you want to be that scar on Joaquin Phoenix? Ya heard!)
So there's your celebrity walk-on. One person who loved it, and one person who liked it and thought it was pretty good. It's my Shyamalan retrospective, I'll do what I want with it. Besides, she's smarter than me and looks better in a dress, so take that into consideration too. Of the first three Disney/Shyamalan films, I'd say this is second behind Unbreakable, but each film is very good, and made a quality writer/director of Shyamalan, up until a few years ago anyway.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, Signs uses the AVC MPEG-4 codec and the results are fairly impressive. Detail can be picked up on some of the easier sequences like any tight shot that displays every Gibson pore on his face, and you can spot some of the wood textures in the house. The background depth is adequate, making for a decent multidimensional image from time to time. However the source material isn't as pristine as I was expecting (the sequence where the family holds up a baby monitor to the skies is the biggest point), and the image depth isn't as consistent as I'd expect for a several-years-old film, but Signs is a solid upgrade from its standard definition little brother.
On the audio side of things, the uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track is the more impressive star of the show, largely because of what doesn't occur while watching it. The film is mainly driven by its dialogue and its score, and the dialogue is so clear and strong with little (or no) compensation needed to turn it up; it was a pleasant surprise to hear. Of course, any sequence set in the Hess family cornfields provides you with a quietly enveloping wall of cornstalks blowing in the breeze, placing you firmly at the center of it. Speaker panning is evident, particularly during the scenes where the family dogs are running around and barking, and some music cues even manage to break in with a hint of low end fidelity from time to time. On Blu-ray, Signs makes for a subtly powerful sound experience.
The third Shyamalan film was one of Disney's short line of "Vista" releases, and the extras from that release are ported over to this Blu-ray disc. The biggest extra on the disc is the making of featuette. Broken down into six areas (or you can play them all at once, they run just under an hour), the piece covers all aspects of the film, from the initial idea in writing the story to the production times (pre and post), along with the premiere and initial box office totals. Shyamalan does talk about his influences when creating the film, among those, The Birds and Night of the Living Dead, and the prevailing notion is that he doesn't like CGI, as he says, and his crew agrees with him. And again, you can see that in the silly looking aliens, but that's not important right now. The cast also shares their thoughts on working with Shyamalan, and Shyamalan talks about some of the behind the scenes happenings during several key scenes from the film. Composer James Newton Howard comes in near the end of the piece to cover the score of the film, and Shyamalan shares his thoughts of the film just days after it opened. All in all, it wasn't a bad featurette. Next are five deleted scenes running about eight minutes in length. The first four are pretty brutal, but the last one is actually fairly cool, and those two minutes could have been left in the final cut. A multi-angle feature is next, covering two scenes from the film. Much like Unbreakable, the three soundtracks are in 5.1 surround (the score, production effects and final cuts), but you can change these on the fly, whereas you couldn't on the Unbreakable one. The two angles are the final cut and storyboards, and those who have seen Shyamalan's other multi-disc looks on other DVDs are used to this now. Shyamalan includes a clip from his first alien movie, which looks an awful look lot like he's fighting to get away from a roomba with a Halloween mask on it, but he's the big Hollywood director, not me. Trailers for Wall-E, Step Up 2 the Streets and The Nightmare Before Christmas complete the disc, along with the $10 rebate for this Disney title and some others.
Signs is suspenseful, humorous and emotional, sometimes all at once. Gibson plays the role of a conflicted father very well, and the film's technical qualities are firm improvements from previous versions, so any qualms about double-dipping should be allayed. It's easily the last time that Shyamalan exercised any real creative artistry without being arrogant, and besides, my wife said it's an awesome movie, so go get it again, dammit!