Saturday, July 28, 2012

Throw-Back Movie Review: "Signs" by Alex Schopp

Release: 2002
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Written By: M. Night Shyamalan
Actors: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Pheonix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 106 min

First off, it feels really weird labeling this "Signs" review as Throw-Back; but it is now more than ten years old, so I guess if the shoe fits...

Anyway, after checking out "The Watch" this weekend, it made me want nothing more than to go home and watch this movie. I've always enjoyed a healthy dose of aliens in my films, and after seeing "The Watch" fail in so many ways, I wanted to watch something that did the genre right. "Signs" comes so close to constantly being in my Top 10 of all-time, but I can never quite pull the trigger on it. Yet every time I watch it - and I feel like it makes its way into my DVD player at least once a year or so - I'm constantly impressed with so many aspects of it. Even just last night, there were two subtle scenes that I got something new out of that I know I'd never thought about before. And for as many times as I've watched the movie, it was pretty impressive actually.

I'm going to assume all have seen this movie, so for the review below, I won't be holding back on any spoilers. If you haven't seen the film yet, go do so.

It seems almost pointless to do so, but just so we're all on the same page, the film revolves around a family living on a farm who suddenly notices crop circles on their property. They all think it's some kind of hoax, but as they start popping up all around the world, it begins to feel like this is more than a couple of pranksters with boards and rope. amongst all of this, Graham (Gibson) has recently lost his wife and the mother of his two children to a car accident. The accident caused this former reverend to question his faith and abandon the church. The entire film basically boils down to this one specific line that Graham voice to his brother (Phoenix) in a moment of uncertainty: Are you the kind of person that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?

We're led through this film with those questions in mind, knowing that it's something that, in some regard, our characters are thinking about too. As the situation begins to escalate, we see how each of these characters decide to handle things. It's a true testament to character and your beliefs, and what will truly get you through the worst of situations.

I think what I love more than anything about the film is the atmosphere of it all. Shyamalan does a fantastic job throughout 90% of the movie of creating tension and putting us on edge without actually seeing anything or knowing what's going on - of course, when done right, that's how it should be. I can't think of one other film from Shyamalan that uses quite as many interesting shots as this film either. Shots through windows, off reflections, at ground level, with a wide-angle lens; he's constantly mixing it up, and so many of these shots made me feel uneasy. It made the film interesting and never felt like Shyamalan was being gimmicky with anything either (though he has come to love that wide-angle lens these days). The best way I can describe it is that the camera work just melted into the film.

The sound effects of the entire film are another major highlight for me. I'd love to someday talk with Shyamalan about this very aspect and see what he did differently. But everything from the gravel under their feet to the crops blowing in the wind was all amplified almost to match the dialogue levels. My best guess is that the increased levels aided in an almost echoing sound that made for a more isolated feeling. It also might have just been about making you feel more uneasy as well, but regardless, it was noticeable and well received on my end. Also, while we're still in the same ballpark, James Newton Howard's musical score is fantastic from start to finish. He always does a great job in Shyamalan's movies, but this has to be some of his best work. The riff that he created for when tension intensifies is incredible.

I can't figure out who's a better actor in this film, Mel Gibson or Joaquin Phoenix. I like Gibson a bit more in general, and he is the main character, so I tend to lean towards him, but I feel like I appreciate what Phoenix brings to the table a little more every time. Gibson's character is questioning his faith, trying to protect his children, and overall just trying to understand something that he has no grasp of. He's a character in shambles and, in a way, the entire situation helps him regain his faith and see that everything really does happen for a reason. He delivers on emotion scene after scene, with little externally to aide him. Phoenix brings a subtle comedic relief to the film, and also makes for such a quietly caring uncle and brother. Both children, Culkin and Breslin do a fine job as well, and thankfully don't subscribe to the traditional trope that all young children must be shrill and uncontrollable in moments such as these. In fact, it's them, with the help of a book on extraterrestrials, who seem to know how everything will play out, with Gibson's character continuing to come to them for answers.

The only minor complaints I have for the film are the boy's startled scream when the telephone rings - you can tell how forced it was - and a couple of the effects with the aliens themselves. I realize it was ten years ago, and most looks pretty decent, but it still stands out and is something that I wish was a touch better.

Otherwise, the film provides fantastic atmosphere, interesting directing, plenty of good acting, and an overall good story. There are moments in this film that still get to me and put me on edge. It's a great personal look into a situation like this, and how family can help you defeat anything - both literally and emotionally in this instance. The climax of the film doesn't provide one of the greatest Shyamalan twists we've ever seen, but it's good and clean, and really does a nice job of tying the whole film together. The film has aged incredibly well and I think can still hold up just fine. If you've already seen the film, then surely a late night viewing is in order; if you haven't, then find the biggest TV you can, wait until it's completely dark out, turn out all of your lights, and pop this baby in. It's hard to find a better sit-in-the-dark movie than this one outside of pure horror films.

I realize this hardly reads as a review and more just as why I think this film is great, but I guess that's the problem with trying to review a film that for some reason or another you unquestionably love. If you have qualms with the film, I get it. I realize it's not perfect. But to me, it's exactly what I want from it, providing enjoyable watch after enjoyable watch. Consider this as more of a refresher than a review to all out there who might not have brushed the dust off of this DVD case in a few years.

P.S. The reason the film didn't score a perfect 10 in the Watchability category below is due to the fact that I never want to watch this movie during the day. It needs the dark to aide in its ambiance and tone. To me it's the same as watching fireworks during the day or something. You could do it, but you know you'd much rather just wait a few hours until the sun goes down. That's what this film is.