Welcome to the world of M. Night Shyamalan. A place were every moment of suspense is stretched to the breaking point, where there's so much build-up that little room is left for a payoff, and the storytelling conventions are so pretentious it would give a film school class fodder for weeks of analysis. Yet, despite Shyamalan's overt Hitchcockian influences and arty pretentious, the guy's somehow managed to tap into populist fears, and films like 'The Sixth Sense' and 'Signs' have made out like bandits at the box office.
Grossing over $200 million during its 2002 theatrical run, 'Signs' starts out like a horror film, veers into somber religious drama, and ultimately mixes in a dash of science fiction for an unexpected climax. As I hate spoilers in reviews (despite the fact that almost everyone probably already knows the secrets of 'Signs'), I will refrain from an overt plot synopsis, other than to say that 'Signs' is yet another hoary tale of the faithless man whose faith is restored, only told under the guise of a standard genre B-flick.
Shyamalan, however, has never been much for outright hokum, so every moment in 'Signs' is taken absolutely seriously. It's giving nothing away to say that (an appropriately subdued) Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, an ex-Reverend who, following the death of his wife, has reverted to the simple life of crop farming while raising, along with his brother (Joaquin Phoenix) his two children (including future Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin). But when some mysterious circles begin to appear in his fields, and local reports surface of strange happenings across the country, Mel and his kin are swept up in a plot that threatens the fate of all mankind.
Where 'Signs' departs from most films of this supernatural ilk is in the way Shyamalan frames his story. Told almost entirely from the perspective of the family, the film feels intimate, almost like a chamber piece. While it's likely Shyamalan made some of his choices based on budgetary concerns (don't expect a bunch of CGI and outlandish make-up effects), he also roots his story in the mind of Hess to cement his themes. Few will be surprised by the manner in which these spectral happenings influence Hess. This is an interior story of restored faith told against a backdrop of a much larger canvas -- it's like a disaster movie, only one that doesn't bother showing the actual disaster.
That's probably my ultimate problem with 'Signs.' Quite frankly, it's a genre movie that doesn't have any fun. Gibson, as well as Phoenix deliver fine performances, and Shyamalan creates one particularly revealing flashback scene that centers the characters, but aside from a couple of effective suspense moments, the pacing is so languid that 'Signs' is a rather dull thriller. I found that Shyamalan was too pronounced in his subtext, and almost morose in his tone. Even if the family dynamics are well-observed, the Hess clan seems like such a dull, lifeless, and depressive bunch that I had trouble mustering up much emotion for their fates by the film's end.
Yet despite my obvious reservations about 'Signs,' it has enough positive qualities that I'm going to give it a minimum recommendation of three stars. There are some genuinely scary moments, and at least one jolt that truly made me jump out of my seat. Some may also find the theme of restored faith inspiring. If nothing else, it's certainly well-crafted and strongly-acted piece of work. I'm just not sold on the whole Shyamalan thing, but if you're a fan, 'Signs' is certainly his best film after 'The Sixth Sense.'
'Signs' comes to Blu-ray several years after hitting DVD in a standard-def version that got mixed reviews. This long-awaited 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer doesn't appear to have been minted from a remastered transfer, but it does indeed reign superior over the DVD.
I was generally pleased with the image. While the DVD appears soft, the Blu-ray is sharper, with even dark scenes boasting much better detail, particularly in the shadows. Contrast is still on the dull side -- the image feels somewhat dark even in daylight scenes -- so there is not an overwhelming amount of pop. However, I still found the presentation to possess adequate depth. Colors are intentionally subdued, but greens are fairly robust, and dark scenes have a nice blue edge. Unfortunately, I was distracted by a thin veil of edge enhancement, and there are some motion artifacts on slow pans. 'Signs' is not a top-tier catalog transfer, but despite its faults, I generally found this to be a solid presentation.
I had little reservation about this disc's audio. This PCM 5.1 Surround mix (48kHz/24-bit) is subtle, but excellent. The sound design is so well crafted, I was never once bothered by the fact that there is little bombast.
Most impressive is how finely-tuned the surrounds are. Right from the opening scene in the cornfield (where off-screen dogs are barking to eerie effect), the sense of directionality is palpable. Imaging is seamless, the sense of realism is strong. Dynamics are also more impressive than I expected, with the use of loud and harsh sounds quite jarring (in the best sense of aural manipulation). I also liked how minor ambiance was consistent, and the sparse use of score nicely bled throughout. Dialogue is perhaps a little too low in the mix, but it wasn't anything that required volume adjustment -- it's just a bit quiet. All in all, 'Signs' is an excellent example of how a well-modulated thriller should sound.
Disney provides the same line-up of bonus features found on the previous standard DVD edition. It's not a huge package, but there is depth to the extras (particularly the documentary) so it makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity. (All bonus features are provided in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only, with optional English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.)
'Signs' is all build-up with little pay-off. While I admire M. Night Shyamalan's commitment to delivering subtle, Hitchcockian thrills, quite frankly 'Signs' just takes far to long to get to an underwhelming conclusion. This Blu-ray is a solid if unexceptional presentation, with good video and audio, and not-bad supplements. But is this a must-have catalog release? Not really.