“Signs” has been compared to everything from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” to “The War of the Worlds” and rightfully so, but I’d cut off my fingers to find out if M. Night Shyamalan, the gifted writer-director of “Signs,” screened a little known 1982 thriller entitled “Endangered Species” before he sat down and wrote the script for “Signs.” That film starred Robert Urich and JoBeth Williams as a big city cop and a small town Sheriff who team up to investigate bizarre cattle mutilations in a small town. It wasn’t a successful film, but it had a quiet style, like “Signs.” Of course, while “Endangered Species” fell through the cracks, “Signs” is one of the biggest hits of recent years.
It’s amazing how simple “Signs” is. It’s kind of like a Chinese puzzle box in reverse in that the more you pull on it, the less there is. It’s effortless: the scares come out of nowhere and out of nothingness. The less violent, the less “genre” the film is, the more we admire it. Watching it again on DVD, you may find yourself, like me, timing scenes (it’s not a long film) or just soaking in the sheer simplicity of it all. You get the feeling, after watching “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” that M. Night Shyamalan establishes a rigid set of rules with himself prior to writing his scripts and those rules include no gratuitous violence, excessive special effects or crude language. Even the stupid people in his films are literate somehow. They’re smart stupid.
And yet, like other directors, Shyamalan’s not the most illuminating speaker when talking about his own films and so, when watching the hour long making of segment in the “Signs” DVD, we’re not too upset that Shyamalan hasn’t provided a director’s commentary to go along with the film. Oh, it’s not that he’s boring or obnoxious, far from it, but, after you watch the one hour documentary on the making of the film, you feel like you’re full and it’s time to watch the damn film. A commentary track with Shyamalan and one or more of his co-stars would be a whole other story. That would be very attractive. What’s there left to say?
There’s a few interesting things that we learn from the one hour documentary. The flashback scene where Mel Gibson, with priest’s garb on, arrives at the wife’s accident scene, was shot first, partially for scheduling reasons, but mostly to allow Gibson to sink his teeth emotionally into the material. The first day of filming also coincided with 9/11 which, along with a personal tragedy within Shyamalan’s own family, moved the cast and crew to take a touching group picture, complete with candlelight. Another scene that was shot out of order was the end scene, not the last scene where Mel Gibson appears back in priest uniform, but the scene where Morgan (Rory Culkin) is miraculously revived following his possible inhaling of the alien poison gas. It was shot near the start of filming.
Another interesting detail is the relationship between Shyamalan and his composer, James Newton Howard, which seems to be built out of grudging respect. Shyamalan’s not a big fan of movie music and he’s not afraid to let his feelings be known. He feels that a film is not yet complete unless it can be shown completely without music, thereby not having the need to add music as some sort of crutch which he feels is what happens to most films. Shyamalan was confident enough with “Signs” to allow Howard to use more music than had appeared in any previous Shyamalan film, to great effect. Another modern device that Shyamalan has contempt for is the dreaded CGI process which prolonged “Signs”’ shooting schedule by weeks and forced Shyamalan to shoot around the effects sequences.
The most disappointing part of the DVD is Shyamalan’s so called “first alien film.” Film is one way to describe it; forty seconds of dead space would be another, as we essentially see a cloaked, remote controlled robot move around Shyamalan’s living room. The only interesting thing about this film is the sight of a young Shyamalan as we try to gleam through his eyes for evidence of the genius that was to follow him. It’s basically a rip-off though.
Then there’s about eight minutes of deleted scenes and, to be sure, after you sit through these, you’ll understand why they were cut from the film as we sit through some lugubrious and tortured dialogue, mostly between Gibson and Phoenix. Five minutes of the deleted scenes are devoted to one scene, an alternate version of the scene where Gibson and his family first head down to the basement to bunker down. In the deleted version, Gibson recounts a childhood story when his character, Graham Hess, tore out the arm of his younger brother, Merrill. Needless to say, the story starts out slow and goes downhill from there. There is one keeper in the whole bunch of scenes: A flashback scene of Graham and his late wife dancing in the living room, gently rocking back and forth. It’s a moving and tender shot and I think it would’ve worked well somewhere in the film. Otherwise, Shyamalan, in his infinite wisdom, was very, very wise to axe all of this material, which, even in terms of nostalgia, has very little worth.
But the film itself is great to watch again and I think fans would welcome a sequel. What I’ll remember most about “Signs” are the sounds of the wailing dog, screaming through the living room wall; Officer Paski (Cherry Jones) explaining to Graham the true extent of his wife’s condition; the sight of Merrill looking up at a military poster, wondering what he’s going to do with the rest of his life, and the tension filled meeting between Graham and Ray Reddy (Shyamalan, in a very effective performance), the lout who ran over Graham’s wife. After all that, the sight of the alien itself is kind of anti-climactic. If you’re not going to show millions of alien creatures, as with “Independence Day,” maybe you’re better off not showing any. “Signs” is graphic evidence that less is more.
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