Signs (2002)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix
Extras: Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Short Film

The more I see of M. Night Shyamalan’s work, the more I like him. I don’t necessarily think that his films are perfect, and I also never felt that "The Sixth Sense" was truly as good as everyone else seemed to perceive it, but I thoroughly appreciate Shyamalan’s style. In the sea of flashy and overtly graphic filmmakers, he is a pillar of class. His filmmaking resembles much more the classic suspenseful movies of masters like Alfred Hitchcock than today’s fast-food fare. He gives the viewer food for the imagination as he builds tension without ever revealing too much of what’s going on or threatening our protagonists. His latest film "Signs" follows the exact same path and creates a suspenseful movie experience that is now available on DVD.

On a corn farm, former priest Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is trying to overcome the death of his wife, who was slaughtered in a tragic car accident. He has lost his faith and is now raising his two children with the help of his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). One night crop circles appear in his corn fields. Large, symmetric shapes that can’t be explained. At first he does them away as pranks, but as these signs begin to spring up across the world, he and his family begin to get concerned. When eventually spaceships and actual aliens are being spotted the world begins to fear for an alien invasion and eradication of the human race. Quickly, Graham makes plans to protect his loved ones, but how do you protect yourself from something you don’t know?

With Mel Gibson in the lead of a film like "sign" you really can’t go wrong. His portrayal is once again marvelous, filled with subtle nuances and explosive outbreaks of frustration, fear and humanity. His performance is beautifully countered by Joaquin Phoenix, who easily shares the screen with Gibson and has some memorable scenes in the film in which he has the change to show his versatility. All set almost entirely inside the farm house or in the surrounding cornfields, "Signs" creates a feeling that is claustrophobic yet never static. With white knuckles we await what’s going to happen next and wonder if the noise we just heard was part of the soundtrack or if something is actually stirring in your own home.

Buena Vista Home Entertainment presents "Signs" in its original 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio on this DVD in an <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer that is <$THX,THX> certified. The image is absolutely clear and clean, as there are no speckles or other defects visible in the picture anywhere. "Signs" marks the first time that Buena Vista Home Entertainment is releasing a "Vista Series" DVD as a single disc by dropping the <$DTS,DTS> track and incorporating all of the extras on that one disc. Sadly, the result does not meet the quality criteria the studio imposed on itself with previous releases. Given the limited storage space on a single disc, the film had to be compressed much more and as a result compression artifacts are evident on many occasions. Typically you will find banding artifacts and in some instances the background turns out to be seriously pixilated, losing all definition and detail. Colors are also slightly affected, losing some of their vibrance as a result and especially red-tones are affected. I wish I could say that these artifacts are not distracting, but occasionally I did find them extremely obvious, and I am not sure how this could have slipped through the THX-certification process.

The DVD contains a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track in English, as well as a French dub in <$DS,Dolby Surround>. The tracks are very well produced and create a stirring ambience that is as suspenseful as the images and the story. The audio makes good use of the surround channels with subtle effects that add directionality and depth to the mix and a score that underscores the level of suspense, fueling your imagination even more with its simple, ostinato main theme.

To my disappointment the DVD also does not contain a <$commentary,commentary track>, which had been a part of previous Vista Series releases. As such viewers will have to revert to the included documentaries to learn about the production and through process that went into the making of the movie. These featurettes, however, are very well-crafted and do relay a lot of information. The entire documentary is made up of six featurettes covering various aspects. The first one tells us how Shyamalan had the idea for the movie, how he was harboring it for some time until eventually finding the right context to turn it into a movie. The next featurette covers the writing of the script and very candidly Shyamalan explains his working method while collaborators also comment on his working style. Another featurette covers location scouting and the building of the actual sets in Pennsylvania. Shooting on location was vital for the director and as such the production design team had to make sure the sets feel authentic and real by building a complete farm house surrounded by endless cornfields. One of the featurettes is dedicated to the music of the film, one of the key elements of the film. Composer James Newton Howard discusses his work and his relationship with Shyamalan quite extensively and we get to see glimpses at the spotting and scoring sessions. The last featurette covers the special effects of the movie, most notably the evolution of the aliens and the way how they were realized and incorporated into the film.

The DVD also contains a selection of deleted scenes. I found all but one scene fairly redundant and it was evident why they were removed from the final cut. There is one scene however that I found extremely intriguing – the one with the attic door – that I felt would have stood out well in the movie, but hey, who am I to make such judgment?

A selection of storyboards from the film are also included, complete as a multi-angle feature that allow you to view the storyboards and the final scenes side by side.

To round out the DVD, M. Night Shyamalan’s first alien movie is also included on the release and it is, I think, needless to say that you should definitely watch this little gem in the rough.

"Signs" once again shows us Shyamalan’s cunning mastery of the film medium. He is in a league of his own, clearly, with his superb writing and directing skills and even his own acting in the movie turned out pretty well. The film is perfectly paced and though the ending may appear a bit unspectacular at first, the more you think about it, the more weight it becomes with its understated play. Once again Shyamalan gives us a movie that takes our imagination and allows us to fill out the blanks in our own minds, and nothing is as powerful as the images your own imagination can conjure up because they are so utterly personal. It also reminds you that this film is not really about the aliens, but more about a man trying to find faith in the world around him.