While Signs is not your typical alien film it will hold your attention if you concentrate on the emotional impact of the performances

The growing trend in film making today is the louder the better. Far too many films are centered on the technical wonders that computers bring to special effects. While I have to admit that I can enjoy some films in this classification what really grabs me as a viewer is the synergy between the script, direction and acting. M. Night Shyamalan has brought to the screen such a film of merit, a film actually worth being made and watching, Signs.

Signs concerns a former Episcopalian priest Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) who lives with his two sons in rural Pennsylvania. Living with them is Graham’s brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). This setting in Signs is quiet and typical of the cornfields of that region, until something disturbing slowly begins to become evident. The dog barks at what appears to be nothing. The wind sounds somewhat off, crooning at an eerily note. Then the crops are damaged; crop circles appear from nowhere. The events grow to international scope. Television broadcast display odd events happening all over the world. Newscasters that are normally unaffected by the stories they relate have the un-mistaken sense of dread in their voices, of not understanding what is going on anymore than the viewers. More now than ever people depend on TV News to reassure as well as inform. The little hint that this media is just as clueless as we are helps to set the mood of uneasiness the film manifests.

What makes Signs is that it is so real in every detail. Rather than depending upon CGI monsters we see a man that lost his faith in God upon the death of his beloved wife. Graham is trying his best to hold his family together not only in the face of the strange things happening but also just in the daily struggle of life. In one scene he has to help his son over an asthma attack. This is just one of many moments where the audience will realize that a film achieves greatness not on the computer but in the ability of the actors and directors. Signs is a film of human emotions not dazzling visual effects. It’s a nice change to see that such films can still be made and appreciated by the audience. The beauty of Signs is in the way it flows; it carries the audience along on a cinematic river. Sometimes in a gentle glide, other times in a rush of current. While Signs is not your typical alien film it will hold your attention if you concentrate on the emotional impact of the performances.

Mel Gibson is one of those people in modern film that seems to really enjoy the media in all of its varied forms. Not only is he one of the most versatile actors around, never afraid to take on a new genre, but he is one of the handful of actors that successfully transitioned into an award winning director. As he matured from the action roles that manifested his earlier career he brings the required maturity to his role as a troubled man. The way he shows Graham’s love for his children, the loss he feels for his wife and the disenchantment not only in his faith shows the range this man can project. Not only did Graham lose his faith his vocation was tied to those beliefs and he had to return to the comfort of the hard work required on a farm.

Phoenix is another of those actors that turn up in the most unusual roles and nails them. Whether he is a Roman Caesar or a clerk in a porn shop he embodies the roles he brings to the screen. In Signs he brings a contrast to the uncertainty of Graham. Merrill has the viewpoint of a younger man, willing to help his older brother but not as affected by the loss that drives Graham. Rory Culkin plays one of the kids. Yes, yet another Culkin is set out on the film-viewing public. It seems that this family is trying to out do the Baldwins. Like his siblings young Culkin can handle the role like a professional. While not the caliber of the young star of the Sixth Sense director Shyamalan has a knack for directing youthful actors.

Speaking of Shyamalan, Signs is the third major film for this bright new director. Many are looking to him as the heir apparent for Hitchcock. While it is too early in his career to make such a judgement, and far too much to impose on a young director, he is certainly a contender. For one thing he is able make an emotional connection with the audience. He does this not with splashy special effects but by knowing how to tell a story. So far he has only directed films he as written but this affords him to really be involved intimately with his projects. It will be interesting to see him direct someone else’s words. Shyamalan has a true eye for detail so important in a film like Signs. His use of color is less pronounced than in his other films but the talent he shows for lighting and framing is incredible. He uses reflection throughout the film, almost symbolic of the altered way the characters view life. As a young director there is still much for him to learn.

The pacing falls in a few spots but nothing drastic. Signs surrounds the audience more than pulling them into the suspense. In this way Shyamalan is able to provide an increasing feeling of claustrophobia as the family draws into the depths of the home. A continuing theme throughout Shyamalan's films seems to be ordinary families facing extraordinary circumstances.

As with Sixth Sense and Unbreakable the Signs DVD is very well done. There is a six-part documentary that covers the production so well it is almost a mini film course. There are also deleted scenes and a little look at the very first alien movie Shyamalan made awhile ago. As for the presentation of the disc the Dolby 5.1 audio is THX certified. The sound field is well balanced with good use of all speakers. The sub woofer use punctuates the sound track nicely. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video provides a good color pallet with realistic colors throughout. The real test of Signs is in the many darker scenes there was no sign (no pun intended) of compression artifacts or edge troubles.

Signs is well done and worth while not only for the growing number of Shyamalan fans but will entertain most of the family. It is rated PG-13 and is a bit too intense for the younger family members. Watch Signs with the light out and wonder what is going on outside your house.

Review by Doug MacLean of

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