Can you think of any major studio filmmaker who has so under-delivered on his rampant industry hype and praise than M. Night Shyamalan? After making a critical, box office, and pop culture splash in 1999, the Academy Award nominated director gave us ‘Unbreakable,’ a decent-but-anticlimactic brooder; ‘Signs,’ an underdeveloped bait-n-switch bore; ‘The Village,’ a mind-numbingly plodding thriller; ‘Lady in the Water,’ a dim-witted fairytale that jumped the shark; and the ironically titled ‘The Happening,’ a dull, vapid road flick that went nowhere. Luckily, the source of his mainstream success -- ‘The Sixth Sense’ -- remains a tightly written, well acted drama that continues to please both viewers who know about the film’s infamous twist ending and those who don’t.
’The Sixth Sense’ tells the bleak but deceptively endearing tale of a nine-year old named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) who reveals a frightening secret to his psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis). It seems the boy can “see” ghosts. Initially skeptical, Malcolm begins to believe that Cole is afflicted with the same gift as a former patient (Donnie Wahlberg) whose hallucinations led to suicide. Working to save a failing marriage with his wife (Olivia Williams), help Cole reconnect with his mother (Toni Collette), and to uncover the truth of the boy’s ability, Malcolm comes to realize that existence and reality are far more complex than he once thought.
Admittedly, the sheer magic and impact of ‘The Sixth Sense’ hinges on its twist ending. Shyamalan is not only tasked with shocking newcomers, but with patching any potential plot holes for repeat viewers. On both counts, he succeeds. When I first watched the film, I thought its carefully plotted buildup, while slow, was rich with effortless character development and naturalistic dialogue. Today, after a dozen viewings, I’m more impressed with Shyamalan’s sharp editing, careful plotting, and pitch-perfect casting. As a slow-burn thriller, the film has its share of startling moments and unsettling turns, and as a character study, it has all of the nuance and emotional complexity of an undiscovered Indie. It helps that Willis is convincing in an unexpectedly subdued performance, Osment handles his role with deft maturity, and supporting actors Williams, Collette, and Wahlberg help to texture Malcolm and Cole’s lives with realism and heartbreak.
Of course, anyone expected a chilling horror masterpiece will be vastly disappointed. Shyamalan has never billed himself as a horror director and is far more interested in telling a simple, haunting, and ultimately uplifting ghost story. In fact, if anything works against ‘The Sixth Sense’ (aside from the director’s insistence on appearing in his own productions) it’s the film’s pre-existing hype. In 2008, everyone eye-balling the flick for the first time goes into the experience hunting for its notorious twist. Unfortunately, their search will distract newcomers from the disarming charms of Shyamalan’s characters and the multi-layered progression of his story. Basically, anyone expecting a twist ending will find the film far more underwhelming than those who were caught off guard by its denouement.
If ‘The Sixth Sense’ was a lesser-known release whose ending hadn’t received so much notoriety over the years, I believe it would still be converting people with its jolting revelation. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible. The film will always be burdened by audience foreknowledge and can only rest on its story and characters. Thankfully, ‘The Sixth Sense’ boasts an intelligent script, thoughtful dialogue, and a series of excellent performances. It may no longer have the ability to surprise anyone, but it’s still a great flick.
’The Sixth Sense’ arrives on Blu-ray with an attractive 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that delivers significant visual upgrades from the film’s previously released DVD editions. While its palette is still as bleak and wintery as ever, Shyamalan’s career-maker features vibrant colors, stable contrast, and deep blacks. Detail has been markedly improved as, well with crisply defined objects (that don’t rely on lingering edge enhancement), revealing delineation, and notable background clarity. On a technical front, the presentation also doesn’t suffer from any considerable artifacting, crush, source noise, or print damage.
Sadly, Disney elected to mask the film’s grain field (which, by my estimation was fairly unobtrusive to begin with) with an application of DNR. The unfortunate and most-damning consequence of this process is that it softens textures, reduces fine detail, and, at times, makes skin look unnaturally waxy. Luckily, the DNR applied here isn’t the worst I’ve seen and doesn’t completely ruin the experience. If you thought ‘Dark City’ looked bad, you’ll probably hate ‘The Sixth Sense’s transfer as the DNR is more frequently noticeable, but if you shrugged your shoulders at the slight detail-loss in the latter, you’ll be relatively satisfied with the former. Either way, the BD offers a clear and substantial upgrade to current DVD owners and delivers an admittedly eye-pleasing presentation.
Presented with more confidence and reliability than the video transfer, Disney’s uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track enhances the film’s moody atmosphere and subtle score. Dialogue is clean and well prioritized in the mix -- in fact, the abundance of whispers and hushed utterances could have been a detriment if Disney had produced a technically deficient audio mix, but every line here is crystal clear and perfectly intelligible. Likewise, a restrained LFE presence and limited rear speaker aggression allows the most involving moments in the film to resonate just as they should. More importantly, bountiful ambience and realistic interior acoustics create an engaging soundfield. In fact, I didn’t realize how effectively the soundfield had been developed until I reached the third act and could feel how immersed in the experience I had actually become over the course of the first hour.
If anything, the intentionally quiet soundscape can be a tad front-heavy and sometimes leaves the rear speakers with little to do. Just keep in mind that this certainly isn’t the result of a technical mishap, but rather the product of the film’s original sound design. All in all, ‘The Sixth Sense’ delivers a stirring uncompressed audio track that easily outclasses its DVD counterparts and gives fans the best conceivable presentation.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘The Sixth Sense’ includes all of the special features from its previous DVD releases and presents them in standard definition. Fans have often clamored for a director’s commentary but, like papa bear Spielberg, Shyamalan refuses to pull the curtain back that far.
Anyone haunted by DNR-sensitivity may rail against the Blu-ray debut of ‘The Sixth Sense,’ but it’s really the only major strike against an otherwise impressive release. Not only does the film itself hold up to repeat viewings, scrutiny, and its detractors’ criticism, the disc’s appealing video and excellent audio presentations offer significant upgrades from previous DVD releases. Add to that a healthy supplemental package and you have a disc that’s certainly worth a look.