DVD - Image A- Sound A Extras B
BD - Image A- Sound A Extras B
starring Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin
written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
by Walter Chaw M. Night Shyamalan makes very specific films about very specific concerns in a very specific manner: long master shots; an unusual trust in silence; remarkably few edits for a modern picture; joy in the choice of garish topics; and a thing for failed fathers and their lost little boys. He reminds of Hitchcock in his elevation of pulp art into high art, but differs in that his concerns aren't so much about abnormal psychology, the nervy manipulation of the audience, and the voyeuristic implication of movie-watching as they are about personal demons and Shyamalan's increasingly obvious desire to be considered in the same breath as his idol.
Shyamalan understands too well his own formula and with Signs, his third overtly supernatural film after The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, he displays an unbecoming self-consciousness that renders his ostensible subject allegorical subtext, with his own favourite issues (the father/son dynamic, the comic book spirituality) the only reason for the film's existence. I suspect that Hitchcock wasn't crafting a treatise on his fear of strong women with The Birds (the film that Signs apes scene for scene), but I do suspect Shyamalan was crafting another apologia for his indoctrination into the cinematic pantheon with Signs. Shyamalan is now making "Shyamalan pictures"--and the question of the hour becomes how much one punishes an exquisitely crafted film for being trite, predictable, ludicrous, and self-important.
Shyamalan's crop-circle opera Signs involves, as implied, a father (Mel Gibson), a son (Rory Culkin), comic-book spirituality (which in this film overtly establishes Mel as another kind of stray son to the Holy Father), and the intrusion of the supernatural into the mundane. The invisible world is so close in Shyamalan's films that his pictures have a claustrophobic feel, forcing the characters to speak in undertones and urgent whispers that consistently fail to keep the paranormal at bay. Signs owes its imagistic sources to more than The Birds: It cribs liberally from Drums Along the Mohawk (more precisely, John Sayles précis for an early unmade Spielberg project called "Night Skies" that reimagined Ford's film with aliens), Night of the Living Dead, Field of Dreams, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and, crushingly, John Irving's pulp-Christian novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany.
That Signs is easily the most derivative of Shyamalan's films doesn't seem to be of much of a concern for the director, as the chronic sloppiness of his alien MacGuffin this time around (his ghost and superhero MacGuffins are handled with far more consistency and respect in his previous work) seems to point to Shyamalan's desire for us to focus on his messianic zeal to convey his manifest message. Rather than allow doubt that the father/son relationship will heal, he believes that his characters are destined to heal; with Signs, he's shed all pretence at being interested in his narratives and become tedious, plodding, and proselytizing, less a storyteller than a messiah.
Graham Hess (Gibson) is a fallen reverend still referred to as "Father" by most of the people in the small Pennsylvania burg of Buck's County. He lives on a farm in the middle of a large cornfield with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and his two young children, Morgan (Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). The premise immediately recalls Field of Dreams as a decent, hard-working man gets a message in the corn (and brother Merrill, it turns out, was a former minor-league slugging hero)--save Graham's message is in the form of a pattern of tamped-down corn and the "they" in "they will come" probably aren't baseball fans.
It's beside the point to reveal whether or not we actually see any aliens in Signs because their alleged existence stands as a metaphor for a different kind of alienation, just as the title refers to a religious manifestation rather than the crop circles. Shyamalan's science fiction is so specious and carefully crafted to fit into his themes that it's clearly not meant to be taken seriously. It's so bad, and the characters' reactions to certain situations so moronic, that it frankly can't be. Where Hitchcock's inexplicable birds stood in for an idea of offended femininity, taking retribution against one of their straying sisters, the idea (or fact) of Shyamalan's aliens is just a source of convenient strife that forces a straying boy-child (two sons really: Morgan and Graham) to regain faith in and dependency on their F/fathers. Allowing his desperation and laziness to show, Shyamalan even resorts to the Hitchcock-disdained jump scare no fewer than four times, a slasher film tactic that mortally cheapens the film.
Signs is both a Hitchcock shrine (even the opening strains of James Newton Howard's score riff on Bernard Herrmann's Psycho theme) and an ode to Shyamalan's own issues. It's a magnificently-crafted, expertly shot allegory that begins with a view through an age-warped window and ends with a pull through that same window, now broken--a desperate symbol that plays, like those of the rest of the film, like a hammer to the temple. Tellingly, Signs also features bookend title cards touting it as "An M. Night Shyamalan Film" in thirty-foot letters--it's a total ego trip (note Shyamalan's extended "cameo" and exactly how crucial it is to the film: the man makes himself the most important character in the piece), and no matter how beautiful it looks, how expertly its sound is mixed, how funny it can be, and how effective a few tense scenes are, the picture is a first-class disappointment. In the end, Signs--this lightweight masculinized version of The Birds (substituting passages over water for, natch, passages through corn)--doesn't even have the courage to be as bleak as what Truffaut called Hitchcock's "apocalyptic tone poem," choosing instead to offer what is the director's most head-slapping, rabble-pleasing epilogue. Frankly (and shockingly), Bill Paxton's Frailty, with similar intentions but a meaner streak, did it all so much better. Originally published: August 2, 2002.
by Bill Chambers Another DVD in Touchstone's always-welcome VISTA Series line, Signs is also, to my knowledge, the first home video release with a picture of the director on its cover. That Shyamalan, ever the humble one! Night's mug is the first strike against the package--if we shall keep count, the second is that it is not a dual-discer like the other VISTAs, but rather a single platter issue in an Amaray keepcase, with dull artwork to add insult to injury. Thirdly, the extras here were cooked up by Laurent Bouzereau, the most unexciting producer of supplementary material in the game. Shyamalan is following in the footsteps of his idols Spielberg and Hitchcock, one supposes, in commissioning a DVD documentary from Bouzereau (in whom Shyamalan has no doubt found his soul mate in immodesty), but it probably goes without saying that Charles Kiselyak's featurettes on the VISTA issues of Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are superior in every respect to Bouzereau's six-part puff piece on Signs.
The disc's THX-certified, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation of Signs is rich in grain from time to time--at last the celluloid spirit of a new film is preserved in the digital realm. This is a nimble telecine effort--save banding during the exceptional opening titles--that provides richer contrast and shadow detail than the DVD transfers of Shyamalan's previous movies. A Dolby Digital 5.1 track shows its prowess in two chilling sequences, the first when Graham investigates a disturbance in his cornfield at night (chapter 9, "Evidence"), the second in the siege on the house (chapters 17 and 18)--a heartpounding set-piece that achieves its suspense almost entirely through the use of clatter in the split-surrounds and the occasional squishy punch of bass. The LFE channel is otherwise passive and the discrete channels ignored. I was relieved to find dialogue much easier to hear than it was at the cinema--louder and clearer.
Spartan, unsettling menus offer access to a "bonus" section that contains "Making Signs" (fullscreen), which runs 59 minutes if you watch it in a lump sum via the "Play All" option. (Separately, it's comprised of "Looking for Signs" (6 mins.), "Building Signs" (8 mins.), the cryptically-named "Making Signs: A Commentary by M. Night Shyamalan" (23 mins.), "The Effects of Signs" (8 mins.), "Last Voices: The Music of Signs" (8 mins.), and "Full Circle" (5 mins.).) This isn't so much a behind-the-scenes look at Signs as a celebration of M. Night Shyamalan's M. Night Shyamalan-ness, with the hyphenate bemoaning CGI (because it's the one aspect of the production he can't micromanage), delivering lectures on marketing, doubting the need for music in his films as it only clouds "the poetry of the writing," and, finally, freely admitting to being a hardcore capitalist. On the other hand, "Making Signs" is not completely disposable: there's a great peek under the hood of 'the baby monitor scene' as Night, wearing his editor's cap, expresses certainty that it's destined for the cutting-room floor. Moreover, there are fascinating glimpses of ILM's rejected alien concepts--I hope that Eric Brevig discovers a use for them in some creature-feature down the road.
A section of five discarded scenes (sans commentary) includes a couple of silent flashbacks to Graham's dead wife as well as a silly struggle against a visitor in the attic. A two-angle storyboard-to-scene comparison for the pantry fracas and Graham and Merrill's nighttime pursuit, a hilarious 2-minute excerpt from "Night's First Alien Film" (in which a remote-control car wearing a Halloween mask chases Night himself around the house at a speed of, oh, an inch per hour), and Buena Vista's standard "Register Your DVD" link round out the VISTA Series edition of Signs. Originally published: December 29, 2002.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Is it a 'sign' that M. Night Shyamalan was humbled by the failure of Lady in the Water or that Disney no longer feels obliged to massage his titanic ego that his face does not appear anywhere on the cover art of Signs' Blu-ray release? Whatever the reason, it's just one of the many upgrades you can expect from this disc. I may have cut the image too much slack previously: although the BD evidently sports the same transfer as the DVD (albeit remastered in 1080p), shadow detail is dramatically improved and fine-object detail is much less squelched, though the latter results in a slightly less convincing integration of CGI. There remain too many pinhole flecks for my taste--Buena Vista was never very diligent about that stuff and it's coming back to haunt them--and, sadly, some posterization still intrudes on the opening titles (perhaps the banding is intentional after all), but overall I can recommend retiring your old copy without much hesitation. As for the sound, while I couldn't sample the 24-bit PCM uncompressed track, I found the default DD 5.1 audio exactly the same as before. Every ounce of the SD platter's supplementary content resurfaces here, with only the storyboard-to-screen comparisons enhanced for 16x9 displays. (They also feature 5.1 listening options that isolate effects and music from the final mix.) Previews for the studio's Blu-ray slate, WALL·E, Step up 2: The Streets, and the upcoming The Nightmare Before Christmas BD cue up on startup. Originally published: May 26, 2008.
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