Signs [Blu-ray]

With M. Night Shyamalan’s newest thriller, The Happening, moving into theaters this month, now is a good a time as any to release his 2002 hit, Signs, on Blu-ray. That’s just what Disney has done. While there isn’t much about the Blu-ray release that will get anyone too excited, it’s always nice to have an excuse to watch this entertaining film. Signs was originally released in both theaters and on DVD six years ago. Most people either saw it during the original run (it made more than $400 million worldwide) or have run across it on their televisions in the intervening period. Repeated viewings do have a tendency to mute the chills and tension that director/writer/producer/cameo performer M. Night Shyamalan layers into the movie like the good Hitchcock disciple he is, but this movie is good enough to remain highly watchable, even when you know its secrets.

Mel Gibson gives an especially strong performance as Graham Hess, a former Reverend, who lives on a Pennsylvania corn farm with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and his two young children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (six year old Abigail Breslin in her first role.) The family comes across a large crop circle in their corn field. When the circles are combined with some things going bump in the night outside and strange behavior from the family dogs, Morgan starts to wonder if “everything people have written in science books is about to change.” It does.

The way Signs differentiates itself from other scary movies is that the goal of the film isn’t just to put the family in peril and just jump out at them. Shyamalan doles out information on the family, its environment, and the events happening around it as slowly as possible. He leaves hints and clues all over the place, but rather than just telling us early on what traumatic event caused Graham to leave the church, or why Merrill is living with his brother, or what the crop circles mean, or anything, he reveals everything indirectly, cranking up the tension as he goes. That makes this less a movie about scaring a bunch of poor saps then of people in an unusual and unexpected situation looking at the possibility of miracles, faith, and coincidence.

He also tempers the tension with a lot of humor. This is probably the funniest quasi-Hitchcock movie ever made. Kids make tin foil hats to keep the aliens from reading their thoughts, Bo won’t let a world changing event on television be taped over her ballet recital, Merrill believes a miracle is not being vomited on at party. The performances by all four leads are excellent and very funny. It’s almost like a real family would act if the events of the movie actually happened.

This is really the movie, and not the more popular Sixth Sense, where Shyamalan’s full talents reached their highest point. There are plot holes and some inconsistencies, even a few characters respond to other characters comments about events with statements like “how can anyone know that?” It’s more than made up for in the strong acting, interesting story, nearly flawless look and score, and overall uniqueness of the presentation. A real treat for the few who haven’t given it a chance yet. The Blu-ray disc mirrors exactly the extras provided on the standard definition DVD release from early 2003, so the only reason to upgrade here is to get the HD picture and improved sound quality from Blu-ray. Is it worth it?

The picture is excellent. The colors and images are crisp and with so much of the movie being about atmosphere, it really is nice to look at. Although a more critical eye might be able to see flaws, it will pass the requirements of most moderate viewers. Many of the scenes take place at night or in dark locations but it’s not difficult to follow the action thanks to the clear picture. The sound is equally strong, with every creak and foreshadowing sound easily discerned.

The Blu-ray also gives a short summary of each extra provided when you scroll past it on the menu. It’s a nice addition and gives a sense of what you can expect, since, at times, bonus feature titles are more than a little vague. The only drawback to the disc is that the copy that I had would not restart from the same location if I pressed “stop” rather than “pause.” In almost any other DVD or Blu-ray, pressing “stop” and then “start” would put you back where you stopped, but in this case it goes all the way back and restarts the disc as though it were new. This is a little annoying, but may not be the case in every disc or every player (I have a PS3.)

The actual extras themselves are a decent, albeit pretty standard, collection. There is no commentary, which is a disappointment. Having Shyamalan provide some insight into his clues and story structure would have been nice. He does give up some of that in a rather lengthy six-part documentary about the making-of Signs. When viewed as a play-all, the total running time is 60 minutes and includes insight from everyone, including the stars. It actually functions the way these should, not as commercials for the movie, but as behind-the-scenes instructions on how the movie was made and marketed. In an interesting coincidence, the film was being shot when 9/11 occurred, so there is some discussion in one of the sections of how that impacted the cast and crew.

The remaining extras include about seven minutes in deleted scenes. Most of it is one five minute scene that enhances the period when the family barricades themselves in the house. The drawbacks of the scenes are that they are standard definition, so they look really crummy on an HD TV. The other weaknesses is the lack of any commentary or introduction. In one or two cases, it was hard to determine where the scene might have gone and why it was cut.

There is a pretty disposable feature which allows you to watch two scenes in story board form with either the full sound mix, the score only mix, or the sound effects only mix. It doesn’t do much for me to watch fairly crude pictures (these storyboards are not elaborate at all) while listening to the dog barking. Finally, Shyamalan introduces a portion of a film he made as a kid that featured a “creature.” It’s lousy, but short.

In the final analysis, is this disc worthy of an upgrade from a standard DVD? The level of extras makes it hard to say that this is a must-have for anyone who already has the DVD. If you don’t have the movie, though, or you want the best possible sound and picture, it’s worth getting this copy. The movie and the lengthy documentary make it a nice disc. If you have the DVD and are slowly replacing them with Blu-ray, this isn’t a “must-have” right now, but you should probably get around to it eventually.