(2002) *** Pg-13
106 min. Touchstone. Director: M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin.

Much has been made of nouveau auteur M. Night Shyamalan's double-edged sword; ever since the young writer-director-producer(-actor!) unleashed the smash The Sixth Sense (all $660 million of it), he has faced the expectations of success and killer plot twists. His follow-up, Unbreakable, was perceived by many as too clever by half (or half as clever?), spelling diminishing enthusiasm from audiences and critics. His new film, Signs, better faces expectations, and will likely be received as a middle ground between his "success" and his "failure."

As a movie, Signs is all about toying with audience expectations. This time, the gimmick is the fabled crop circle. Are the crop circles evidence of alien life or an elaborate hoax? At one point, a character blurts a line key to the writer-director's brilliant trickery: "It's like War of the Worlds." Ah, but H.G. Wells's alien invasion tale War of the Worlds or Orson Welles's equally famous radio hoax? That darn Shyamalan! Unlike the auteur's first two movies, Signs resolves this key question at the one-hour mark, allowing for more conventional dramatic resolution rather than a burdensome twist ending.

As a story, Signs is all about faith and family. Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a single father in Bucks County, PA (since Sense, Shyamalan has compulsively set his films in and around his hometown of Philadelphia). A former reverend, Gibson's farmer discourages the townsfolk from calling him "Father," to no avail. "Father" lives with his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), son Morgan (Rory Culkin), and daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin). Plenty stressed since the loss of "Father"'s wife, the damaged family reaches critical mass when the circles start cropping up (along with shadowy figures), and alien hysteria breaks loose among the citizenry.

As Shyamalan showed in both Sense and Unbreakable, he has powerful abilities to modulate tone and tension. Relatively sedate for a summer movie and almost entirely bloodless, Signs can be formal to a fault (witness Tak Fujimoto's spare and perfectly composed cinematography). Shyamalan also pulls in the stirring musical support of composer James Newton Howard and cultivates a rigorously low-key acting style to match his storytelling restraint. Shyamalan models the style by giving himself a key supporting role (substantially larger than his previous cameos), a potential distraction within the otherwise rigorous tone of claustrophobic suspense. Remarkable child performances and sturdy work by Gibson, Phoenix, and Cherry Jones as the local sheriff keep the engine humming.

Shyamalan's undeniably smart writing makes for pointed and economical scenes like the nicely handled, central scene in which Graham and Merrill, huddling with the sleeping kids on the couch, discuss whether or not they're alone in the universe. Whispers about aliens seamlessly turn to whispers about God. Scenes like this one and lengthy "blind" walks through dark rooms and tall fields make up much of the film, though Shyamalan peppers comic diversions and brief shocks to keep us entertained (the sometimes goofy gags threaten to tip the balance clean over, but they never quite manage it). As we all learned from Shyamalan's cinematic idols (Hitchcock and Spielberg), less is more, so instead of explicit images, we get chittering noises and clunks in the dark, thanks to busted bulbs and errant flashlights.

Aside from a bit of badly judged telegraphing, an unfortunate similarity to a Panic Room plot point, and a heavy hand with his trademark flashbacks, Shyamalan holds the reins confidently. Signs is an anti-Independence Day, a cousin of Close Encounters, but most of all, a well-modulated, dread-laden, faith-based mystery.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: PCM 5.1 Surround, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround

Street date: 6/3/2008

Distributor: Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Another fine Blu-Ray from the Disney pipeline, Signs arrives with an impressive hi-def transfer (occasional specks of dirt and a bit of digital artifacting keep this from the top ranks of recent reissues), while a well-calibrated PCM surround track does justice to the subtle original mix. All of the special features from the DVD edition are ported over here, in standard definition.

Deleted Scenes (7:32 with a "Play All" option) include "Graham and Merrill" (1:05), "Flashback: Scene #1" (:23), "Flashback: Scene #2" (:36), "The Dead Bird" (:21), and "Alien in the Attic and The Third Story" (5:07). The thorough six-part doc "Making Signs" (58:31 when you "Play All") deals with the film's conception; pre-production storyboarding, scouting, and builds; production; special effects; music; with a final summation. Participants include writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, producers Frank Marshall and Sam Mercer, executive producer Kathleen Kennedy, storyboard artist/second unit director Brick Mason, production designer Larry Fulton, Mel Gibson, Cherry Jones, Joaquin Phoenix, Abigail Breslin, Rory Culkin, visual effects supervisor Eric Brevig, and composer James Newton Howard.

A multi-angle storyboard comparison feature allows the viewer to select for two scenes the final mix, score, or effects track (each in 5.1 surround) and then play the scene, toggling at will between the filmed scene and the storyboard sketches. The scenes are "Graham, The Knife and the Pantry" (2:58) and "Graham and Merrill Chase the Unknown Trespasser" (2:13). "Night's First Alien Movie" (2:17) is a clip from Shyamalan's childhood "creature" movie Pictures; it's a cute, all-in-good-fun extra.



Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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