Signs (2002) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Jari Kovalainen (30th June 2008).
The Film

In the recent interview (from “Cinematical”-site, conducted by Eric Kohn), Indian born-American raised director/writer/co-producer/actor M. Night Shyamalan says; “The only things that have ever hurt my movies is their expectations. There's nothing I can do about that”. This seems to be also true with his latest film “The Happening (2008)”, which quickly started the usual “I-hate-the-movie vs. I-like-the-movie”-debate on various forums. People often have established a particular mindset towards certain movies, even before the actual feature, but with Shyamalan, you never know what he’ll actually deliver. He plays mainly by his own rules, even with the big studio system. Because of that, Shyamalan rarely receives any universal “praising”, nor “mocking”. It’s always both. He’s not a typical “blockbuster man”, so people equally either “love” or “hate” his movies…with passion.

Whatever the case may be, people also pay to see his movies. After breaking through with “The Sixth Sense (1999)” (Oscar nominations for “Best Director” and “Best Writing (Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen)”), Shyamalan has been one of the more interesting players in Hollywood. Bold “Unbreakable (2000)” failed to impress at the box office, but “Signs (2002)” was another big hit (and the last real “hit” he’s had so far, I might add). It was one of the highest grossing films of 2002 and earned over $400 million worldwide. The subject matter was very promising from the start; Alien invasion through the eyes of a close family. And of course, as it’s often the case with Shyamalan, there’s also deeper subject matter “hidden” within the story. This time it’s faith.

In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, ex-Priest Graham Hess (Mel Gibson - two Oscars for “Best Director” and “Best Picture” for “Braveheart (1995)”) has lost his faith and turned his back to religion. He’s living in the Victorian style farmhouse at the outskirts of the small town with his two children; asthmatic son Morgan (Rory Culkin) and daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin - Oscar nomination for “Little Miss Sunshine (2006)”), along with Morgan’s brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix - two Oscar nominations, for “Gladiator (2000)” and “Walk the Line (2005)”). Before losing his faith, Graham tragically lost his wife in a grim accident, when the local veterinarian Ray Reddy (M. Night Shyamalan doing a great job) fell asleep at the wheel of his car with disastrous results.

Their rather simple, quiet and grey life (especially after the accident) is about to change when one morning, a big crop circle is found on their cornfields. Soon the family dogs are starting to act aggressive, Morgan’s baby monitor is picking some odd noises and some unknown visitors (well, a quick glimpse) is spotted on their premises at night. Local Officer Paski (Cherry Jones - e.g. “The Village (2004)”) tries to make some sense out of the mysterious trespasser, but it stays a mystery. For a while, that is. When similarly huge crop circles start appearing in different parts of the world, it’s evident that something is happening. The “signs” are there, but what are they trying to tell? The Hess family will get all their answers soon. And they might not like what they learn…

For me it’s quite clear, that “Signs” is a small masterpiece and Shyamalan’s finest hour so far. All his strengths and “trademarks” come almost perfectly together in this film; well-chosen actors; personal, close and intimate feel; carefully built tension and suspense (occasionally, even horror); warm humor; intriguing subject matter; “hidden” messages and the general feel, that you don’t quite know what’ll happen next, let alone that Shyamalan would show too much. Everything is tightly controlled and the audience has to be ready for the surprises, or the lack of them, for that matter. The less you know and read about the story beforehand, the better - that’s the basic rule with the films by Shyamalan. If you add the natural, beautiful cinematography (by Tak Fujimoto), powerful music (by 7-time Oscar nominated composer James Newton Howard) and quiet, thoughtful - even restrained pace (without losing the tension), it’s not really a surprise that “Signs” did so well at the box office. It can even pull through the tricky ending (not perfect, but pretty good reward nevertheless). The endings with Shyamalan’s movies are usually put under heated debate, though, so other people might disagree. And I’m sure they will.

In the extras, Shyamalan lists three movies that influenced “Signs”; “Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)”, “The Birds (1963)”, and “Night of the Living Dead (1968)”. While the “Signs” is not widely considered as a similar, bona fide classic, its best horror and suspense moments are tightly executed and truly memorable. Again, you don’t see everything, but your imagination is left to fill the caps. “Graham and the flashlight”-scene in the cornfield, “pantry scene”, “Brazilian video” and of course the last section of the film. For me, those are really special moments - “rewards”, that you get as an audience member. These “scary moments” are then balanced with humor and a few touching scenes involving the Hess family (the “dinner scene” is just stunning piece of acting). These moments might be quick and perhaps even slightly “boring” for some (lengthy dialogue exchanges), but the thing that should matter is, that they mostly work.

It might also sound an overused expression these days, but the actors in the film are pretty much perfect. Especially Mel Gibson, who delivers one of his best performances of his whole career, which is already saying a lot (he reportedly got $25 million for his part, so at least the money was well spent). Although there are many aspects of the film that work like a charm, it’s Gibson that ultimately carries the film in his shoulders. Like Shyamalan says in the extras, no wonder that he’s called a “superstar”.

So, another geeky Shyamalan-fan praising the man and finding nothing wrong with his films? Well, not exactly. The subject matter, that’s quite a tricky part in the film is the “faith” aspect. Shyamalan underlines it too often in the film (sometimes hitting the message with a “sledgehammer”) and perhaps treats the whole subject a bit too “black and white”. Like you turn the faith “on” and “off”, and without “faith”, you’re suddenly lost and gloomy. I still feel, that this is a very minor gripe for the film (for me, at least) and when think of it, Shyamalan actually does a pretty good job with Graham struggling with his faith. It feels quite natural for the character to be a bit “lost” and sad, and actors like Gibson can show those difficult emotions very genuinely. It’s not very easy subject matter to begin with. The flashbacks of the “accident scene” also don’t always achieve their goal. They tend to feel a bit unnecessarily even.

I can also understand (to a certain degree), if the humor in the film is not for everyone and there are some scenes when it’s pretty close to going a bit too far (Graham doing the “cheesy TV-cop thing” for example). For me the humor still worked in most cases, making me smile and sometimes actually laugh (I mean during the “chase scene” with Graham and Merrill, the humor and tension is mixing up perfectly). It happens in a very natural way, so it’s easy to laugh with that type of humor (I’m a person, who rarely finds any real “humor” in these modern, American “unrated” comedies and such, so perhaps it’s just me).

The thing that also might annoy some of the viewers is the lack of “real payoff” after some of the well-executed, scary scenes. Shyamalan really takes all the time that he needs when building tension in “his way”, but just when the spooky scene is at its peak and the audience is gasping, the scene moves to the more quiet and safe environment (back to the house, for example). For some, the “opportunity was lost”. The horror “peeks”, but never truly stays, at least not until the “last part” of the film (even in that, there are other areas where the focus is going).

I still feel, that “Signs” was not the film meant to take the more traditional “horror/sci-fi/alien invasion”-route, since it wasn’t what Shyamalan had in mind in the first place. It’s his vision and as we know, that vision is often not for everyone. And yes, for me it works almost perfectly now, as it is. It’s not perfect and most likely not for the “ID:4”-fans, but it’s hard to find a movie, that can balance so well the various themes of horror, suspense, humor, sadness, drama, even sci-fi, religion and media criticism. If you know many directors that can do it, please forward their names to Hollywood executives. They surely would need it.

Video

“Signs” is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen (1080p 24fps), with small black bars on the top and on the bottom. It uses AVC MPEG-4 compression. The transfer looks generally very good, capturing the original look of the film. The black levels are solid and natural, with the transfer being clear (only a few minor artifacts every now and then). In the dark scenes the film doesn’t always capture the “reference” status and the color palette can be a bit “dull” in places (in some of the exterior scenes, the sky is more like “white” than “blue” and you don’t really find “vivid” colors in the film), but this is partly how the film should look, I’m sure. Minor film grain is present, as seeing in the finer details. The transfer is not super-sharp in every scene, but again quite natural looking. “Signs” is not the film, that looks overly “glossy” and “pristine” in the first place, but compared to the older SD DVD that I still have (not for long, though), Blu-ray is clearly superior. Very good presentation of the film.

The film is using “BD-50”-disc and there are 21 chapters. The film runs 106:30 minutes. Note, that the disc is confirmed to be "R0" (packaging also states “Region A, B, C”).

Review equipment: Sony Bravia KDL-40W2000 LCD (1080p) + Playstation 3 + Yamaha RX-V1800 receiver (HDMI 1.3), via HDMI cable.

Audio

The disc includes the following audio tracks; English PCM 5.1 (48kHz/24-Bit - 4.6 Mbps), English Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 Kbps), French Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 Kbps), Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (256 Kbps), Japanese PCM 5.1 (4.6 Mbps) and Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 Kbps). Optional English, English HoH, French, Spanish, and Japanese subtitles are included. Note, that the Japanese audio tracks and subtitles are not included in the back cover (and this is not the first time with “Buena Vista” when the back cover is lacking info).

English PCM 5.1-track is a fine audio experience, even when the film is often quite subtle in its sound design (not really “crash-boom-bang” on this one). The surround channels are used to bring more depth to certain moments, whether it’s the cornfield with crickets chirping, quiet wind blowing, and dogs barking on the background, or the more “action-horror” orientated scenes, when the hostile sounds are coming from different directions, confusing the audience as much as the characters. Audio can be very directional, but with this film it’s a well-planned choice. Dialogue is crisp and the music score (right from the superb opening scene) very powerful. Like the film and the transfer, also the audio is very controlled and fine-tuned. Not reference mix to show off your equipments, but very natural and effective uncompressed PCM 5.1-track.

Extras

The Blu-ray-release ports all the extras from the R1 SD DVD-release (SD DVD didn’t have Trailers for the film either) and there are no “HD exclusives”. All extras (expect “Bonus trailers”) include optional English HoH, French, Spanish, and Japanese subtitles and are in 480p standard definition.

-5 deleted scenes run 7:32 minutes with “Play all”;

*”Graham And Merrill" (1:05 min)
Graham apologies his brother, thanks him and they have a brief, quiet discussion.

*"Flashbacks - Scene #1” (0:22 sec)
Graham’s wife in a rocking chair, holding their small children. Graham is watching from the distance.

*”Flashbacks - Scene #2” (0:36 sec)
Graham dancing with his wife.

*"The Dead Bird" (0:21)
Graham passes the dead bird on the road with his car.

*”Alien In The Attic And The Third Story” (5:07 min)
This is the meatiest deleted scene in the extras. It has more about the “attic door” and the ending confusion, and Graham also tells the story about his brother when he broke his arm (since he tells the similar story about his own children in the film, this is the “third story” that didn’t make it to the “final cut”).

-“Making Signs” 6-part documentary runs 58:37 minutes with “Play all”, covering the whole production with interviews (mainly from Shyamalan, but you’ll hear some selected comments from the producers and actors), storyboards, and selected “behind-the-scenes”-footage;

*”Looking For Signs” (6:12 min) focus on the writing process of Shyamalan (who has written screenplays to all his own movies so far) and how he usually “finds” the story to begin with. It obviously tells about the story of “Signs” (which has also elements of real life occurrences - crop circles), his influences for the style and about the “faith”-aspect of the movie. Shyamalan says, that he prefers the “older filmmaking” to build tension, where you won’t always see everything.

*”Building Signs” (8:02 min) tells how the film was carefully storyboarded before the actual shoot and the location scouting. They built the farmhouse set for the real location and also crew some crops for the movie. Also the crop circles were made for real. Many interiors were then shot in the studio.

*”Making Signs: A Commentary By M. Night Shyamalan” (22:34 min) is actually just an extended interview with M. Night, where he guides the viewer through the several scenes (while he talks, you often see some “behind-the-scenes”-footage). This is great section in the documentary, with plenty of info. Shyamalan is like e.g. Sylvester Stallone when it comes to extras, you just could listen him for days. Shyamalan seems to be quite pleased with the film vs. the original screenplay, and says that the screenplay “held its form” as it was originally written. In this one, you’ll also hear comments from Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix (especially Gibson seems to have genuine respect for the director).

*”The Effects Of Signs” (8:32 min) focus on the effects. This was the first film for Shyamalan involving some CGI-work and he clearly got more than he asked for. It seems, that those CGI-scenes were actually the most difficult thing to pull through in the film, even when CGI is not that huge part of the film (there are a few weaker CGI-shots also). They also talk some of the animatronics-work, along with original concept of certain effects in the film (I don’t want reveal too much).

*”Last Voices: The Music Of Signs” (8:26 min) obviously focuses on the brilliant score by James Newton Howard and we e.g. see some of the recording process at the soundstage.

*”Full Circle” (4:48 min) skips the post-production and is rather focusing on the marketing (interesting aspects of teasers, trailers and posters). We also see some footage of the world premiere. It’s just too bad, that no teasers or trailers are found in the extras (why companies often drop them is beyond me).

-Storyboards: Multi-Angle Features are next, including two scenes. Via “Multi-Angle” (from your remote), you can switch between the “Final version” and “Animated Storyboard”. You also have three audio options for the scenes: “5.1 Final Mix”, “5.1 Score Only”, and “5.1 Effects Only”. The scenes are;
*”Graham, The Knife, And The Pantry” (2:58 min)
*”Graham And Merrill Chase The Unknown Trespasser” (2:13 min)
Do note, that most non-U.S. SD DVD-releases are missing the “Graham And Merrill Chase The Unknown Trespasser”-scene (they have only one).

-“Night's First Alien Movie: Pictures” short film segment (with an introduction by director/writer/actor M. Night Shyamalan runs 2:17 minutes. It’s a segment from the first “monster film” that the young director ever made and involves toy robot wearing a Halloween-mask. I love it, of course.

Bonus trailers (in 1080p HD) run before the “Main menu”, but can be skipped; “Blu-ray promo”, “Wall·E (2008)”, “Step Up 2: The Streets (2008)”, and “The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)”. They run together at 9:26 minutes.

The disc is packaged in a standard Blu-ray case.

Overall

If we skip the vintage ones, “Signs” - along with “War of the Worlds (2005)”, is the only modern “alien invasion”-movie that I really like and where I feel, that the justice has been done towards this fruitful and rich subject. No nonsense, no Will Smith smacking the aliens, no “let’s-just-use-CGI-and-action”-type of popcorn-thing. Real tension, real drama, real humor and real characters and: Great screenplay. Sure, the restrained, often subtle and quite a unique style of Shyamalan is not for everyone for sure, but for me “Signs” is one of the best films in the 2000s so far. Blu-ray presentation does full justice for the film also.


For more info, please visit the homepage of Buena Vista Home Entertainment (Blu-ray).

The Film: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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