I was a good boy. I never got a chance to see Signs in theaters, so I intentionally avoided all of the hoopla surrounding the film, and never learned more about it than what was shown in its rather cryptic trailers . So, when the DVD finally came out, I was thrilled to finally be able to sit back and watch it for myself.
And sweet Jesus on a rocking horse, was I ever bored by it all.
Graham Hess (Gibson) is a reverend whose lost his faith after his wife is killed by a motorist (played by Shyamalan) who fell asleep at the wheel. Graham is barely able to be there for himself emotionally, let alone his two children, so his younger brother Merril (Phoenix) has moved in with him to help with the healing process, and pitch in taking care of Bo (Abigail Breslin) and Morgan (Rory Culkin), the latter holding a stinging resentment against his father for not being able to save his mother. When the family wakes up to an intricate crop circle in their yard, events are set in motion (barely!) toward first contact with a potentially hostile alien species.
Signs moves like corn syrup across a bed of broken glass. While I am a fan of Shyamalan's films, and particularly enjoy the quiet and understated actions of his characters, in this film it's as if they are constantly moving in slow motion, pondering every act with exaggerated patience and infuriating restraint. I found myself actually yelling at the television as if the onscreen players would heed my wishes for them to "move it the fuck along". I appreciate the fact that Graham and his family are already rattled by the loss of their matriarch, but Shyamalan's delicate-as-a-Faberge-Egg approach to virtually everything that happens on-screen seems forced and precious. I can see how this was meant to keep us off balance, build suspense, or drop the occasional visual cue, but it all comes together as a tad dull and lifeless. While this technique worked for me in the wonderful Unbreakable, Signs is a victim of it's own ambition in that it deals with the impending invasion of an alien species as opposed to Unbreakable's quiet and personal "superhero" story. While Shyamalan was obviously trying to make this invasion just as cozy a tale, it doesn't work as such, and is especially silly during the film's dénouement. Graham and his family learn what they need to know about the aliens from the television and radio, but why aren't they compelled to go into town where there's safety in numbers, other people to help fill in any gaps of information, or at the very least, weapons!! Instead, they board themselves in their home and sit around and cry, or look around with wide eyed amazement/fear and wait for the end of the world. Don't they know that information is our FRIEND??
Another thing that bothers me immensely about Signs is the use of the Morgan character as a sort of pre-cognizant orator. How does he become an expert of UFO's, alien invasion tactics and probabilities of survival? Well, a BOOK of course! A book that describes the EXACT scenario they are facing!! Morgan then spouts this information off with absolute conviction as though this were a history tome. I hated this plot device because Morgan's newfound expertise in UFOlogy serves to tell us the story of what's happening to the rest of the world instead of actually showing us. I admire the fact Shyamalan tried to keep the tale as confined to the Hess family as possible, but I would have much rather had this information presented to me through radio broadcasts or the television than some crackpot theorist's book. Were Morgan introduced as a UFO nut or a big Sci-Fi fan perhaps this would have made all of this more palatable, but in this form it's just silly and lazy and ruins an otherwise impressive screenplay.
Now, on the positive side, Signs is a very well made film, with strong performances by Gibson and Phoenix, and Shyamalan continues to impress as a visual storyteller. There are a few suspenseful moments that work wonderfully, especially a scene involving Graham and an alien trapped in a pantry that will have you gasping, and shows the director at his best.
The Vista Series DVD features about an hours worth of mini-documentaries, featuring lots of behind the scenes vignettes and interviews, as well as a one minute segment from a hilarious "film" Shyamalan made as a kid involving a remote control robot in a mask chasing the young Night around his house. There are also a few (mercifully) deleted scenes, storyboard to film comparisons, and multi-angle shots of a couple of the movie's more important moments. It's a pretty good package, lacks a commentary, which keeps it from 5 skull greatness. The picture quality is as good as it should be, and the 5.1 sound mix is absolutely stunning and truly gives surround sound systems a workout.
While I had a lot of problems with Signs, it's not an awful film, it's just not a particularly good one, either.