M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs" is an interesting film if for no other reason than it takes a topic normally mined for sci-fi effects or slasher-style cheap scares and turns it into a reality-based tale of an ordinary Pennsylvania family just trying to cope . . . with an alien invasion. It's the low-key flipside of "Independence Day," and probably closer to what the experience would really be like for millions of families across the world. I mean, would your first impulse, knowing that an alien fleet is hovering "out there" and alien forms have been spotted out the ground, be to run screaming through the streets in panic and get in your car to head for who knows where, or would it be to hunker down and try to think things through?
That's what Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) and his family do. When they discover a 500-foot crop circle in their field one day, they phone Officer Paski (Cherry Jones), who was also the one to tell Graham that his wife had been virtually severed in half by a pick-up truck. And that's why Father Hess (we're never quite sure of the denomination) quit the church and isn't sure now if he even believes in God, much less aliens. But the proof is right there in his field, and, as he soon learns by watching the television, in fields everywhere across the world. Dad, it's like "War of the Worlds,, the boy says in a near-whisper, as if the thing is too incredible to even speak about.
This is a quiet and deliberately paced story, but one which still manages to sustain a believable tension--partly because of Shyamalan's writing and direction, and partly because his core group of actors manage to hover as close to reality as the aliens come to surreality. In a way, the overall feeling of the film isn't far-removed from something like "Panic Room," which saw a flinching Jodie Foster hole up in her home while intruders skulk about and threaten to harm her. The sci-fi aspect is really deemphasized that much.
Gibson handles his part with uncharacteristic understatement, and so, for that matter, does Joaquin Phoenix as his brother, Merrill, who moved in with the family after the tragedy. If you had told me going into it that these two would seem perfectly ordinary as perfectly ordinary brothers and not try to turn the role into something more, I would have raised at least one eyebrow. Maybe both (one seems too evil). But the two of them are as everyday people as an actor can seem to the real everyday people sitting in the cheap seats.
"Signs" was Abigail Breslin's debut, and as Hess's five-year-old daughter, Bo, she's an interesting screen presence even if you didn't know that she evolved into a young actress who would earn a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her work in "Little Miss Sunshine." It might be a bit of a gimmick to have this little girl have an eccentricity about water that makes her leave half-glasses all over the house, but with a matter-of-factness in her delivery she pulls it off. Rory Culkin also holds his own as Bo's older brother, an asthmatic who puffs more than a magic dragon. Oddly enough, those two idiosyncracies are the most heavy-handed Shyamalan gets with the script, because he showcases them so often you know that each is going to come into play somehow. The pacing, too, can seem excessively ponderous, especially in the early going. Overall, though, the film works on the level of ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. This is basically a five-character ensemble film, and all of them make us buy into the Hess family's experience. Even the humorous moments (as when Uncle Merrill and the kids make aluminum foil hats because they think it will keep the aliens from reading their minds) are accomplished with classic understatement.
The camerawork, however, ranges from interesting to attention-drawing, with plenty of harsh angles (lots of up-angle shots of the family's house, for example) and at least one scene where we're left in darkness for a spell. Shyamalan can't seem to resist lingering close-ups on faces that are supposed to be as much of a "sign" for viewers as the crop symbols and circles. In a relatively quiet drama like this, the tension resides inside the characters, and the way to get to that is through their faces . . . in theory. Sometimes it works, but other times the technique can feel overused.
Because "Signs" has kids and aliens and is rated PG-13 for "some frightening moments," parents might be wondering how appropriate it might be for their family. Well, there's no mention of language ("bullshit," "bastard," etc.) on the cover notes, and there's plenty of that. But for scares? The biggest eye-shielding moments come when the family dog attacks the little girl, alien fingers get lopped off, and other alien hands try to grab the children. I would say that a 10 year old would be fine with it, but younger than that, I'd probably think twice.
The 1080p (AVC/MPEG-4) picture looks much better than the DVD that was previously released, with a crisp sharpness, natural-looking colors, and a decent illusion of 3-dimensionality. A few artifacts turned up, but they were in just three places that I could tell and they passed as quickly as they came. Much of the film is shot with limited lighting, and so it's expectedly a little subdued in its overall look. No matter. Though it may not be a showpiece Blu-ray, it's still solid. The film is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is even better. This is a quiet film, and the English PCM 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit) Surround really captures the ambient noises and channels them appropriately, so that the desired startling effect is achieved, but not at the expense of audio logic. Additonal audio options are English or French Dolby Digital 5.1, or a Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, with English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Surprisingly, it's not the same bundle of bonus features that was released on the DVD, even though the bonus features are standard definition. There's a six-part making-of feature that covers the script, set construction, special effects, music, and overall impressions of cast and crew that goes on for approximately an hour. And when I say "goes on," I do mean to imply that it's a low-energy affair that seems tediously paced at times. A little more judicious editing would have helped. The only other bonus features are a multi-angle storyboard, an interesting "first alien film" by Shyamalan, and a handful of deleted scenes that span less than a quarter of an hour--with at least one scene that makes you wonder why it didn't make the final cut. But the shy Shyamalan doesn't show up for a commentary track, so we have no way of knowing why. In other words, the bonus features are okay, but nothing more.
For an evening's entertainment, "Signs" certainly works well enough. It's an interesting film because it downplays the supernatural and emphasizes reality to the degree that it makes the whole idea of an alien invasion seems all the more possible. A solid concept and performances overcome a narrative that can seem plodding at times and obvious at others--including the ending, which most people will see coming before the spaceships start to double-park. But give Shyamalan credit for taking a big concept and dealing with it effectively on a microcosmic level.