In 2002, M. Night Shyamalan brought us his Hitchcockian suspense thriller Signs. Not quite your average alien invasion film, the movie instead uses the invasion as an excuse to focus on the broader theme of faith, as seen through our protagonist Graham Hess (Mel Gibson). Hess was the preacher of the small town in Pennsylvania where he lives, but after the tragic accident that resulted in the death of his wife, he lost his faith in God and left the clergy. After a very cool main title sequence that establishes the tone of the film through James Newton Howard's excellent score, we find Graham now running his farm with his two children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (a very young Abigail Breslin) and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). After Graham encounters a crop-circle in his cornfield, he believes that it's just a practical joke. But soon more events start to occur, and soon it seems like the world is coming to an end as reports of alien invasions come across the airwaves. Now trapped in their farm, the Hess family must survive against the invaders and in the process restore their faith.
Signs plays for the most part as a suspense thriller, with a very intimate shooting style and a small ensemble cast that never takes us outside the small rural town. Only the television is used to show how the outside world is coping with the invasion, but it's a brief glimpse at what is going on. Instead, the film stays close to the Hess family, bordering on claustrophobic at times, through Tak Fujimoto's completely effective and engaging cinematography. James Newton Howard's score is similarly provocative, used minimally but to great effect especially during the climax of the film. We see Graham's wife's accident through flashbacks, and ultimately it results in the film's biggest flaw. The message the film seems to send is that everything in our life means something. I mean, everything. Junk mail showed up today? It means something! Shyamalan's film works well for the first 3/4ths, because we never really see the threat. It's all about subtlety and the impression that we saw something without really seeing it - much like the success of Jaws, which never really showed us the shark. So when we finally do see the aliens, it's a bit of a letdown and after the film ends (in a rather War of the Worlds kind of way) there are some questions remaining about why the aliens chose to come to Earth in the first place. Still, Signs is an effective intimate thriller, and while the ending feels like a letdown given the set-up, it's easily on of Shyamalan's better films.
Released back in 2003 on DVD as a "Vista Series" edition, the new Blu-ray Disc release of Signs brings us a much improved transfer in High Definition, an excellent subtle sound mix, and all of the extras from the DVD. The film has the appearance of a lot of natural light, with soft lighting and clean flesh tones. Interestingly, due to the higher quality of the image, I noticed a few more visual effect shots (mainly bluescreen composites) that I hadn't noticed before. I suppose that's an inevitable consequence of better resolution! There is some film grain, but overall it's a solid transfer, but not reference quality. The audio, on the other hand, is excellent. Granted, this is not really an action movie, so it's more about subtlety than anything else. Presented in English and Japanese PCM 5.1, and English, French, Spanish and Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1, the sound mix immerses you in the atmospheric sense, placing you right in the middle of the situation. Dialog is clear, and the music score sounds excellent, and the sequence in the cellar sounds stupendous.
The extras are all the old ones, with nothing new for the Blu-ray release. That being said, there's still some nice stuff here. No commentary, but we're given an hour-long six-part documentary on the making of the film. "Looking for Signs" talks about development; "Building Signs" looks at the pre-production and storyboarding process; "Making Signs: A commentary by M. Night Shyamalan" takes us in-depth through the production process; "The Effects of Signs" looks at the subtle (and at times not-so-subtle) visual effects; "Last Voices: The Music of Signs" talks with composer James Newton Howard about his excellent score, and "Full Circle" brings us Shyamalan talking about the marketing and release of the film. It's a good hour, and I can't imagine needing much more beyond this to get a sense of what it took to make the film.
Five deleted scenes are included, as well as a multi-angle storyboard feature that lets you switch between the storyboards and the final shots. We're even able to switch between 5.1 mixes of the final audio, the sound effects only, or the score only. Finally, a 2-minute long short alien film that Shyamalan made when he was a kid is included. All of these extras are presented in standard definition, making the film the only thing in HD on the disc. Missing from this release (as well as the previous one) is the theatrical trailer, which would have been great to have since it was so well done.
Signs did very well at the box office, pulling in over $200 million, and provides a solid bit of thrilling entertainment. The ending is the only cringe-inducing part of the movie, which is likely to affect your memory of the entire experience, but I found that watching the movie again after a few years, I still enjoyed it (at least, until the part where it nose-dived) well enough to recommend picking it up. If you're a fan of Signs, it's worth the upgrade for the improved image and audio.
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