Touchstone Pictures // 2003 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 30th, 2008
"People break down into two groups when they experience something lucky. Group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance. I'm sure the people in Group number two are looking at those fourteen lights in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation isn't fifty-fifty. Could be bad, could be good. But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they're on their own. And that fills them with fear. Yeah, there are those people. But there's a whole lot of people in the Group number one. When they see those fourteen lights, they're looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever's going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. See, what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?" -- Graham Hess (Mel Gibson)
Graham Hess (Mel Gibson, Payback) was once a preacher, a man of faith. Then came the day when Graham lost his wife in a tragic accident. Ever since then, Graham has turned his back on his faith and taken up farming as a new profession. His new life is shaken up drastically when his corn fields are attacked by...something. It's not just random destruction, though. Some sort of giant circular symbol has been made in the fields, a sign of some kind. Similar symbols begin to pop up all over the world, and soon Graham and his family find themselves preparing for battle with creatures that may not be from this world.
Once upon a time, I actually believed that M. Night Shyamalan might be one of the next great directors. Prior to Signs, Shyamalan had made the engaging mystery The Sixth Sense and the very underrated Unbreakable. After Signs, Shyamalan made a pair of films so bad they made me cringe: The Village and Lady in the Water. People like to debate about the merits of all of Shyamalan's work, but the general consensus suggests that the early films are good and the later films are bad, and I would agree. So, where does Signs land on the Shyamalan scale? For right now, I'd say that its current position of "right in the middle" is more or less adequate. It's a pretty good mystery, a pretty good comedy, and a pretty good science-fiction film. Essentially, it's pretty good. However, it never quite reaches the heights of its predecessors, nor does it ever reach the lows of its successors.
Shyamalan offers a nice build-up that is suspenseful and engaging. Additionally, the film manages to add a slightly self-deprecating sense of humor that suggests Shyamalan isn't taking himself too seriously (his films that followed Signs suggest otherwise). The screenplay has fun introducing red herrings, throwing around all kinds of wild conspiracies, and gently observing the behavior of individual people responding to the strange events that take place in the film. Nice little humorous moments are peppered throughout that keep the film from becoming too weighted down. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which a drugstore clerk determines to clear her soul by confessing to Graham, and the scene in which tin foil is used in an interesting way. Some of the dramatic moments don't work (more on those later), but almost all of the scenes centered on family interaction are quite strong, particularly the dinner table scene during the film's final act.
This film features Mel Gibson's final performance before the whole Passion of the Christ controversy/crazy beard/drunk driving/anti-Semitism that collectively sent Gibson spinning out of stardom's orbit. It's a little difficult to put all of that aside while watching his older performances today, but let it be said that he is quite convincing in the role. He plays everything very straight, and puts aside that sly winking quality that appears in most of his performances. Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator) is also enjoyable in the role of Gibson's brother, while Rory Culkin (The Night Listener) and a pre-Little Miss Sunshine Abigail Breslin are exceptional as Gibson's children.
The quality level on M. Night Shyamalan's films has varied drastically, but one element that has always been consistently good is the music by composer James Newton Howard. The score for Signs conjures up memories of Bernard Herrmann's work for Alfred Hitchcock, spotlighting a menacing three-note motif that will stick with you long after the film is over. The score sounds just superb on this disc; the sound design is really top-drawer. There's a terrific level of detail here, and the dialogue is crisp and clear. The film looks very strong for the most part. Blacks are very deep, flesh tones are solid, but I was a little surprised at the lack of facial detail.
Extras on this Blu-ray disc are all borrowed from the original DVD release. The main supplement is a multi-part documentary by the ever-reliable Laurent Bouzereau called "Making Signs," which is broken up into several featurettes. Fortunately, there's a "Play All" option, and the whole thing runs just under an hour. "Looking for Signs" (6 minutes) gives a basic introduction, and Shyamalan shares that The Birds was his primary inspiration for the film. "Building Signs" (10 minutes) discusses locations and some of the visual elements of the film. "Making Signs: A Commentary by M. Night Shyamalan" (20 minutes) is NOT an audio commentary that accompanies the film, nor does it feature thoughts exclusively from Shyamalan. In fact, a sizable chunk of the discussion in this portion comes from Gibson. Very odd. Anyway, it's a good discussion of the film's themes and ideas. "The Effects of Signs" (9 minutes) discusses the CGI and special effects of the film, which is a little less interesting than the other segments. "The Music of Signs" (8 minutes) spotlights James Newton Howard's terrific contribution to the film and has some nice footage from the scoring sessions. Finally, "Full Circle" (5 minutes) wraps everything up, where Shyamalan talks about the promotional campaign. It's a solid documentary that offers plenty of meat and thankfully little needless padding. Additionally, there are a few deleted scenes, some storyboards, and a cute little short film about aliens that Shyamalan made as a teenager.
The film's ending is a rather weak one, to say the least. Not only is it an ending that has been used in numerous other science fiction films, but it feels like an enormous letdown after the successful build-up that takes place. Also, there are a couple of groan-worthy moments at the end that are embarrassingly set up early on (I particularly hate the one involving a baseball bat). Though the movie comes to a solid emotional conclusion in terms of the characters, the overall story is a fizzle.
The ending is a disappointment, but Signs still boasts enough sturdy craftsmanship to make it worth a look. The hi-def transfer is pretty solid. However, a lack of any new special features prevents me from encouraging those who own the original DVD to double-dip.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* "Looking for Signs"
* "Building Signs"
* "Making Signs: A Commentary by M. Night Shyamalan"
* "The Effect of Signs"
* "Last Voices: The Music of Signs"
* "Full Circle"
* Deleted Scenes
* Night's First Alien Movie
* Original DVD Verdict Review