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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 1/23/03

Vista Series - 2002 (2003) - Touchstone (Buena Vista)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Signs: Vista Series Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B+/C+

Specs and Features

106 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, THX-certified, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:15:04 in chapter 17), Amaray keep case packaging, Making Signs documentary (4x3, DD 2.0, in 6 parts with play all feature: Looking for Signs, Building Signs, Making Signs: A Commentary by M. Night Shyamalan, The Effects of Signs, Last Voices: The Music of Signs and Full Circle), 5 deleted scenes (4x3, DD 2.0), 2 multi-angle storyboard sequences (with multiple video and audio options), video excerpt from "Night's first alien movie", insert booklet, DVD-ROM feature (online DVD registration), THX Optimizer test signals, animated film-themed menus with sound and music, scene access (17 chapters), languages: English & French (DD 5.1), subtitles: English for the hearing impaired, Closed Captioned

"What you are seeing... is real. It's unbelievable. Everything they wrote about in science books is about to change."

Picture if you will... Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a middle-aged, former preacher who lost his faith when his wife was accidentally killed by a sleeping driver one night. Graham lives on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, raising his young son and daughter with the help of his younger brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a washed-out, minor league baseball player.

Life's a struggle for the Hess family, but it's going along okay... until Graham discovers a strange circle in his cornfield one afternoon. Soon his dogs are freaking out and the local sheriff says it's happening all over the county. Later that night, Graham and Merrill see a strange figure creeping around their house. And the next day, the TV starts going crazy with reports of strange lights in the sky and crop circles appearing all over the world. People you'd normally file away as nuts are claiming it's an invasion and that the end is near. But if you've lost your faith, to what do you turn when your world is falling apart all around you?

Signs is writer/director M. Night Shyamalan's follow up to The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. And like those films, Signs isn't quite what it appears to be at first. As a director, Shyamalan likes to end his films with a twist that the audience doesn't see coming. The problem with doing that is two-fold. First, as an audience, we know that's Shyamalan's schtick, so the surprise is never as good as it was the first time around, with The Sixth Sense. And the second problem, is that the film can ultimately only be as good and effective as the twist.

In the case of Signs, what plays out for 90% of the film as a genuinely creepy and chilling alien invasion story, suddenly turns into something else. Just as the main narrative plot is about to climax, we're taken out of the moment for a series of flashbacks that pay off the emotional subplot. And the cost of doing that, unfortunately, is to lessen the impact of the main story.

Still, Shyamalan's writing and direction here is first-rate for most of the film. Knowing that what you don't see is infinitely more frightening that what you do, he keeps his audience in the dark for most of the film, only teasing you here and there with a glimpse of what it is that lurks in the dark. And he uses sound to great advantage in this film, playing on your nerves with subtle clicks and whispers to great effect. It helps that Gibson and Phoenix are terrific in their respective roles. They way they play off one another, and use humor to mask their fears, makes it very easy to place yourself in their shoes. And Shyamalan's approach to the actual invasion plot strikes the perfect note. He keeps the invaders' motivations utterly alien, making the events seem that much more real. In so doing, he had me on the edge of my seat until very near end. The film is so effective, in fact, that you can almost forgive the cumbersome final scenes. Almost.

On DVD, Signs looks and sounds quite good. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is clean and clear, with an excellent range of contrast. Blacks are deep and well defined, and yet there's plenty of detailing in the shadows - important for a film about things that go bump in the night. Colors are warm and muted, but accurate to the theatrical experience. There's a little bit of edging on occasion, and there is subtle grain visible throughout the print, but neither is distracting in the least.

On the audio front, Signs is also generally good. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundfield is smooth and natural, with nice subtlety and some very active directional play in key dramatic moments. Vocals are well presented and the music is effectively layered into the mix. I can't help feeling, however, that a DTS 5.1 option would have an obvious choice here. This is a film where sound plays a very important role. A DTS track would have really widened the soundstage, and the added clarity would have provided an additional kick to the most tense, and the most subtle, moments.

The place where this DVD really lets you down, however, is the supplemental materials. I'll say it right now - this is the most disappointed I've ever been by a Vista Series disc. To start with, it's only one disc! For a film that made $60 million in the first few weeks, that feels like awfully short shrift. All of the extras (except the multi-angle storyboards) are presented in 4x3 format, so if you're watching on an anamorphic TV, you're constantly switching the viewing mode. There's a decent behind-the-scenes documentary, Making Signs, which is presented in six parts (with a play all option). It features some good interviews and production video, but I don't know that you'll watch it more than once. There are five deleted scenes, but they aren't anamorphic and they aren't in 5.1 (like they were on the Unbreakable DVD), which is disappointing. You also get two storyboard sequences, which let you switch back and forth between the storyboard art and the final scene, and give you the option to hear music-only audio, effects-only or the final sound mix. Again, this is cool, but you're not likely to view it more than once. And the final extra is downright lame. Not to dog Night or anything, but a minute-long clip from his shot-on-video-as-a-kid "first alien film" is not worth viewing... much less including here.

For this film, I wanted an audio commentary! Forget Night's Spielberg complex about doing commentaries. I wanted to hear him talk about all the subtle things he was trying to do - the things that worked and the things that didn't. And I wanted to hear the actors talking about each scene! There's one scene in particular, when Graham and Merrill are boarding up the house, where Graham looks out the window and is frightened by what he sees. Except we never learn what that is. From having read the script, I know that what he saw was lines appearing in the cornfield and approaching the house. So why not include the script? What not include all the storyboard art? What not include a gallery of production art showing the alien design concepts? Why not include all the TV broadcast footage that was shot for the film? Why not include some of the research material Night consulted for the film? Why not include a look at the book that the Hess children are reading in the film? There's just SO many directions that Buena Vista could have gone with this DVD... but didn't. What we get here ultimately feels like second-best compared to past Vista Series releases.

Complaints about the extras aside, Signs is worth at least renting. And if you can find it on sale, you might want to own a copy. For most of the film at least, it's a very good, old-school, edge-of-your-seat thriller. Take the ending for what you will, and know that it probably isn't going to satisfy you. If you go into the film knowing that, Signs is completely entertaining and easy to enjoy. It's just a shame someone decided to cheap out on the DVD.

Bill Hunt
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