|Signs (Vista Series)|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 07 January 2003|
Something that seemed apparent while watching “Signs” in the theatre is even more evident in the DVD version – this may be the quietest major studio alien invasion movie ever made. Sure, “Twilight Zone” used to do things like this all the time – but the average budget of a “Twilight Zone” episode was in the neighborhood of $1.95. Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan may have made the first star-powered, big-budget science-fiction/horror film to wage no-tech warfare in a confined space.
Shyamalan made the little-seen (and surprisingly charming) indie film “Wide Awake,” about a child investigating the world’s religions, before springing to mainstream attention with “The Sixth Sense.” That film took a standard ghost story and approached the narrative from such a fresh angle that the premise snuck up on the viewers; likewise, Shyamalan’s follow-up “Unbreakable” tackled the superhero origin myth from a novel standpoint.
In “Signs,” Shyamalan goes back to the intense investigation of faith from “Wide Awake” – which is just a wee bit less inclusive and therefore a wee bit more didactic here – while putting a different spin on alarm over extraterrestrials.
Farmer Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) lives in rural Pennsylvania with his two young children, asthmatic Morgan (Rory Culkin) and little Bo (Abigail Breslin). Graham’s failed baseball player brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) has moved in following the death of Graham’s wife six months ago in an accident that has caused Graham to renounce not only his minister’s calling but religion in general. Then crop circles appear overnight in the Hess cornfield, too exactly wrought to be the work of local hooligans. The kids are scared and the grown-ups are pretty unnerved, too, especially when TV news reports indicate this isn’t just a local problem.
There are some solid jump scares here, but Shyamalan is more interested in conveying a general sense of dread that stems as much from Graham’s sense of paternal love and responsibility – never mind the planet, how can he protect his little boy and girl? – as overall impending doom. Interestingly, Shyamalan reveals in one of the “making-of” featurettes that filming began Sept. 12, 2001. This doubtless contributed to the mood on set, but in fact, “Signs” seems to have been designed with issues of the Sept. 11 tragedy already in mind. Indirectly, the film provides some metaphorical observation/dramatization of how families with young children cope with coverage of catastrophe. The parallel is not drawn aggressively, but it’s there for those who wish to make the connection.
Shyamalan creates some good, creepy moments – otherworldly noises picked up by a baby monitor in Chapter 8 produce shivers and the Chapter 14 sequence in which Graham uses a kitchen knife to try to catch a reflected glimpse of what’s on the other side of a door (much shown in trailers) is pretty suspenseful – but the movie’s heart is in the parent/child bond. How well one responds to this aspect of “Signs” depends largely on one’s taste for sentiment – and also on one’s expectations. (Here is where DVD reviews can come in handy – we’re here to set you straight on what genre it is you’ll really be watching.) The emotions are sincere, much of the dialogue is legitimately and intentionally humorous, and Shyamalan keeps things moving so that “Signs” never feels like it’s going for unearned effects. However, the familial love in the face of almost certain destruction gets laid on a bit thick by the finale.
The sound mix on the DVD is subtle, complex and extremely skillful. Chapter 2 gives us a nice fakeout scare with an ominous hiss that turns out to be just a waking sigh, delivered an instant before Graham sits up into frame. Later in the chapter, we get discrete dog barking in the rears that moves to the front as the characters’ turn and their point of view changes. Chapter 3 has very powerful use of near-silence that frightens Graham with the wrongful quiet. Chapter 9 provides a wonderfully realistic, enveloping aural environment of the cornfield by night, with low insect drones and soft footfalls. Chapter 17 has a couple of startling bangs and Chapter 18 once again holds our attention with quiet respiration.
Picture quality is mostly very good, with the gentle nuances of Tak Fujimoto’s natural-looking interior lighting reproduced faithfully. However, there are a few shots where the edges of the human characters lack complete integrity.
Extras on the disc include six making-of featurettes that can be viewed as a single run-on entity that runs 58:31 total. Part Five takes a look at the film’s score, with Shyamalan and composer James Newton Howard, as well as capturing the orchestra at work. Five deleted scenes are pleasant additions, though they are not missed from the final film (and the fourth clip is soundless on the DVD).
Gibson projects innate goodness and concern, and Phoenix is a good match for him in both physicality and manner, making them persuasive as siblings. Cherry Jones is swell as a level-headed sheriff.
“Signs” won’t be anybody’s idea of a definitive film about alien invasion, but it’s entertaining, occasionally scary and has an uncommon (if sometimes a bit heavy-handed) emotional take on its subject.