“Signs” represents the zenith of several of my favorite genres, including alien invasion, tension-based horror (as opposed to splatter horror), lost faith renewed, and the notion that everything in life serves a purpose. The latter isn’t necessarily a genre or sub-genre, but it is a device found in many movies. Sometimes the audience will be shown a glimpse of something odd and our movie radar, built on years of watching films, tells us that that snippet of information will be crucial in the end. While “Signs” follows this convention, it’s not in-your-face obvious for the first time viewer, and despite knowing the secrets of the film, Shyamalan’s filmmaking style makes “Signs” an underrated classic in my book, and a film with nearly infinite replay value.
Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a former reverend, lives in a farm house surrounded by corn in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He’s lost his faith due to a tragic roadside accident where his wife died when struck by a truck driven by the town’s veterinarian, Ray Reddy (portrayed by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan). Graham lives with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a former minor league baseball player, and owner of several famous and infamous records, including longest home run (507 feet) and most strikeouts (more than double the next player), his asthmatic son Morgan (Rory Culkin), and his daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin), who cannot find a glass of water she’s comfortable drinking. They awake one morning to find crop circles in their field, and the television news begins to run stories of other crop circles appearing all over the world, nearly simultaneously. Slowly but surely, it becomes obvious that this isn’t the work of a group of 30-year old nerds with nothing better to do, but is rather the beginning of an alien invasion. As the time for the invasion draws near, Graham and his family must prepare for the inevitable, and if they are to survive the ordeal, Graham may have to turn to an old friend and regain his faith in God, and once again place his trust in the power of a higher being.
Director M. Night Shyamalan, if I may be so bold, has the potential to be one of the finest directors working in Hollywood today. He’s plateaued dramatically since “Signs”, but I cannot think of a living director who’s had three straight brilliant films to his credit, beginning with “The Sixth Sense”, followed by “Unbreakable” , and concluding with “Signs”. Keep in mind he not only directed, but wrote these films (and every film he’s directed, for that matter) as well. His excellent camera work is back in “Signs”. He places it ever-so precisely, making his shots some of the best composed I’ve ever seen. His camera often lingers which allows his actors to work their magic, and also lets the settings, locations, and objects in-frame tell the story as much as the characters themselves do. He is also the master of tension and suspense, and uses everyday objects and situations to elevate the level of fear in this film considerably, using something as innocuous as a baby monitor, for example, to create one of the most tense scenes in the film. Shyamalan’s take on spirituality and the cosmic is simple yet superb, the entire movie framed around the old adage that says, “a place for everything and everything in its place,” “signs,” in other words, of the remarkable order of things, where what seems to be chaos is truly order that ultimately trumps the true chaos of the universe. Some may find the ending contrived or unsatisfying. Instead, one may look at it as a true spiritual parable about acceptance of reality for a greater purpose, a message that, for me, rings true. As Graham Hess says in the movie, “is it possible there are no coincidences?”
I can understand how “Signs” wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but for me personally, I felt it, I understood it… I really enjoyed it! (My Movie Rating: 4.5/5)
THE IMAGE QUALITY
“Signs” comes to Blu-ray several years after hitting DVD in a standard-def version that got mixed reviews. This long-awaited 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer doesn’t appear to have been minted from a remastered transfer, but it does indeed reign superior over the DVD.
I was generally pleased with the image. While the DVD appears soft, the Blu-ray is sharper, with even dark scenes boasting much better detail, particularly in the shadows. Contrast is still on the dull side – the image feels somewhat dark even in daylight scenes – so there is not an overwhelming amount of pop. However, I still found the presentation to possess adequate depth. Colours are intentionally subdued, but greens are fairly robust, and dark scenes have a nice blue edge. Unfortunately, I was distracted by a thin veil of edge enhancement, and there are some motion artifacts on slow pans. “Signs” is not a top-tier catalog transfer, but despite its faults, I generally found this to be a solid presentation. (Video Rating: 4/5)
THE AUDIO QUALITY
I had little reservation about this disc’s audio. This PCM 5.1 Surround mix (48kHz/24-bit) is subtle, but excellent. The sound design is so well crafted, I was never once bothered by the fact that there is little bombast.
Most impressive is how finely-tuned the surrounds are. Right from the opening scene in the cornfield (where off-screen dogs are barking to eerie effect), the sense of directionality is palpable. Imaging is seamless, the sense of realism is strong. Dynamics are also more impressive than I expected, with the use of loud and harsh sounds quite jarring (in the best sense of aural manipulation). I also liked how minor ambiance was consistent, and the sparse use of score nicely bled throughout. Dialogue is perhaps a little too low in the mix, but it wasn’t anything that required volume adjustment – it’s just a bit quiet. All in all, “Signs” is an excellent example of how a well-modulated thriller should sound. (Audio Rating: 4.5/5)
DIGGING INTO THE SUPPLEMENTS
We are provided with the same line-up of bonus features found on the previous standard DVD edition. It’s not a huge package, but there is depth to the extras (particularly the documentary) so it makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity.
- Documentary: “Making Signs” (SD, 60 minutes) – This six-part making-of is quite comprehensive. M. Night Shyamalan allowed intimate access to the set, so there is an extensive amount of on-set footage and little dull plot recap etc. All of the main cast and crew (including Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix) offer interviews, and only the plodding pace detracts from an otherwise strong documentary. (The six parts of the doc are: “Looking for Signs,” “Building Signs,” “The Effects of Signs,” “The Music of Signs,” “Full Circle.”)
- Deleted Scenes (SD, 14 minutes) – There are five scenes in all, mostly extended dialogue sequences, plus one excised moment involving an alien that’s the best of the bunch.
- Multi-Angle Storyboard (SD) – A comparison is provided for the alien encounter scene, allowing you to select three different views (storyboard, finished film, and split-screen) via the multi-angle function.
- Short Film (SD) – Lastly, an early short alien film by M. Night Shyamalan is included.
(Special Features Rating: 2.5/5)
M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” sets a new standard for several genres. It’s definitely “Hitchcock-ian” in feel with tension and scares that generally remain off-screen and are presented to us through unsettling sounds, moods, and situations rather than straightforward, always-visible horror. With standout performances by the movie’s four leads, not to mention better than first-rate direction, “Signs” is easily M. Night Shyamalan’s most underrated film – and it gets a decent, if not reference quality, representation on Blu-ray disc. With fine video quality, perfectly atmospheric audio, and a passable set of supplements, “Signs” is a movie that should fit in nicely with any Blu-ray collection. Recommended! (Overall Blu-ray Disc Rating: 3.5/5)