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SIGNS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Cherry Jones, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Touchstone
Features: See Review
Length: 106 Minutes
Release Date: January 7, 2003

ďDonít be afraid.Ē

Film ****

Signs went on to become one of the top grossing films of 2002, but whatís even more spectacular to note is that for a movie of blockbuster status, it is somewhat of an original. The movie had an intense marketing campaign (and a good one, I might add) surrounding the crop signs and the possible sightings of creatures in the film, but lying underneath the story in the film was something much stronger. This notion can always be reflected in the work of M. Night Shyamalan, who is a superb talent at creating spine-tingling scenarios and follows through the story in a very fresh way. He took the same approach with his last two films, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, and has done so once again with a haunting and striking account of a family who are about to experience their very own close encounter.

Continuing the tradition of Shyamalan setting his stories in his home state of Pennsylvania, the story takes place in Bucks County, located not far from Philadelphia. One morning, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) wakes up to some suspicious noises coming from his crop field. When seeing that his two children have already wandered into the field, Graham, along with his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), is startled to discover that a mysterious crop sign has developed right outside his home.

At first, Graham thinks the whole event to be nothing more than a hoax, or a prank put on by some acquaintances. Graham had been a priest, until the night a car accident claimed his wifeís life. Ever since then, Graham has completely lost faith in God, and feels that the whole crop circle may be the work of pranksters who somehow have a problem with Graham publicly denouncing his belief. Nonetheless, the possible sighting has made news on television, as similar signs start to appear at numerous locations of the world. Grahamís son, Morgan (Rory Culkin), strongly feels that the future of the worldís history is about to be changed forever.

Although Shyamalanís films have all done staggering business at the box office, each of his films tend to have both admirers and detractors, as was the case with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. The main complaint Iíve noted from the detractors is the pacing of his films, which has been labeled slow and completely opposite of what the ads promised. What they seem to not realize is that what Shyamalan is doing is perfecting the art of the build up in his stories, and in the case of Signs, which also had its share of detractors, this process is totally necessary. Shyamalan has done something unique in this film, which is the use of silence as a weapon of creating tension, which is done on more than one occasion in the movie. Combined with the genius writing and directing, this risky exercise pays off incredibly and further more challenges conventional moviemaking for the better.

For Mel Gibson, this is by far one his strongest performances to date. Itís a different role for him, because it requires him to be in more of a subtle and restrained matter most of the time, and it results in a fantastic piece of acting. The same can be said for Joaquin Phoenix, and even the two young actors, Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin, who portray Grahamís two children.

I donít want to give any more story details away because in the case of this film, the effect will work strongly if donít. All I can say is that the last third of the movie contains some purely chilling moments and nail biting tension. Watching the movie in theaters, I actually jumped a time or two and no movie has been able to make me do that in a long time.

While I donít label it as M. Night Shyamalanís masterpiece (that honor goes to Unbreakable), Signs is still a remarkable achievement, and in unexpected ways.

Video ****

This is a grand way to kick off the new year in DVD as far as video transfers go. Touchstone has delivered Signs in a knockout looking presentation that is consistently sharp and does not flaw for a single second. I will go ahead and point out that a pivotal special effects shot late in the film appears in a fuzzy fashion, but it is completely intended that way, and is not a flaw in the video transfer.

Audio ****

Being a movie in which silence is a key factor in many scenes, the 5.1 track still manages to pack quite a punch. All of the speakers are put to terrific use here, because many sequences in the film depend on slight cases of sound coming from numerous directions, and the score by James Newton Howard, which really deserves an Oscar nod for Best Score, is heard in a rousing thunderous form. Quite simply an astounding presentation.

Features ***

Somehow, I get the feeling that this was labeled a Vista Series disc simply because The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable were also Vista Series releases, and Signs isnít quite at the level of the treatment the aforementioned titles got. Still, the bonuses on this disc are noteworthy, especially the making of documentary, which is broken into six segments and clocks in at about an hourís length. Also featured are several deleted scenes, multi-angle storyboards, as well as a glimpse of M. Night Shyamalanís first Ďaliení film, which the director easily admits, isnít that great.

Summary:

Signs is startling entertainment and remarkable filmmaking all rolled into one. It might not appeal to everyoneís certain expectations, but those who admire M. Night Shyamalanís work will no doubt be thrilled.