I mentioned in the post announcing Signs as my selection for this week's SFS Movie Club that aliens send me diving under the covers. I had forgotten just how true that was until rewatching Signs this past weekend.
I haven't been keeping track over the years, but I've seen M. Night Shyamalan's spin on War of the Worlds, at the very least, six times (twice in theaters, twice on Blu-ray, and at minimum twice on DVD). And you know what? Even with that many viewings, it still manages to push my alien-fearing buttons. Let's rundown out why:
When I say I'm afraid of aliens, that doesn't mean all aliens. Stories of large scale invasion and destruction don't bother me one bit. It's the intimate, realistic, small-scale stories that make my screen crawl and to that end, Signs is ideal. Shyamalan never once lets the camera wander away from Mel Gibson and his family. We hear about (and sometimes see) other crop circles and then lights and then sightings on the news, but the audience is never given the big picture, which is why there is such an air of mystery to the film.
Now usually I'm not a fan of scripts that don't let you see the playing board, so to speak, but I love that Shyamalan keeps everyone - character and audience alike - in the dark until the very end. However, speaking of characters, the only person I actually like in this movie is Joaquin Phoenix' Merrill Hess. Everyone else is too surface, too vanilla to latch on to. So if I am only interested in one character in the movie (who isn't even the main character), why do I get so wrapped up in the story that it still freaks me out? I've got to chalk that up to A) Shyamalan's refusal to rush any reveals and B) Tak Fujimoto's cinematography.
It's actually part B there that I given even more credit to than Shyamalan's editorial restraint. Fujimoto layers nearly every shot with shadows, often cutting the characters visibly in half. Not only does this allow for plenty of abyssal black areas for your eyes to dart to for hints of something lurking in the shadows, but it's also a little unsettling to constantly only see certain portions of our characters; it keeps the viewer perpetually on edge and allows for a number of pans that are excruciatingly slow in the best nail-biting kind of way. Plus, when he actually wants to reveal a look at the aliens, he just flat out does it. That television reveal at the end of the movie is still one of my favorite visual gags in recent memory.
Though I should point out that the TV reflection isn't the scariest moment of the film for me. It's not the video tape of the birthday party either, though that one's close. No, the shot that gets me every time is that damned silhouette of an alien standing on the roof that does it. It's such a great "Wait, was that what I thought it was?" moment that it makes me fearful that all of Gibson's vacant gazes out of windows for the rest of the film will be abruptly interrupted by the sight of an alien.
On a side note, I'm actually a little disappointed with the Blu-ray transfer on Signs, which is a bit too cleaned up for its own good. For example, the silhouette of the alien is much more amorphous, and thus much creepier, in previous presentations of the film, but on the Blu-ray he/she stands out quite distinctively. Still makes my short hairs rise, it's just a tad less effective when the black levels aren't as murky as they used to be. Maybe this is just one of those instances where the lesser tech of yesteryear actually benefited the film.
But while I admire the 'slowness' of Shyamalan/Fujimoto's method, the one element of Signs that grates on me more and more every time I watch it is how slow the dialog is. I suppose it's because Shyamalan was so inspired by suspenseful radio plays, but there are very few exchanges in the movie that come with the same speed and unrehearsed spontaneity that one would expect to find in a real alien-invasion scenario. The only core actor in the film who doesn't look like he's counting out the predetermined pauses in his head is Phoenix, which is probably why he's the only character I actually enjoy. It's not that I think the others are bad in the film, far from it, it just seems as though Phoenix is the only one who was allowed out from under Shyamalan's thumb to have some fun with the character.
The radioplay nature of the dialog aside, there's really very little in Signs that I find objectionable. I'm even okay with the "it all comes together in a Shyamalan movie" ending. I've never been of the camp that thinks it's stupid that the aliens invaded a planet that so heavily features something that can burns their flesh off because we're never given any information to think their species would have/could have avoided landing on a water-dominated planet. Maybe they were desperate to harvest humans are were willing to risk it. Maybe they thought humans were too stupid to realize that was their weakness (I certainly wouldn't give a second thought to an insignificant and helpless species I was destroying to defending themselves). Hell, maybe they didn't even know what was a weakness. It really doesn't matter to me because the "rules" of their species was neither established nor discovered until that point.
The final thing that I love about Signs is James Newton Howard's string-dominated score. I may be on edge while the camera tries to see what's in the corn or what's casting a shadow on a door, but I can hear two notes of that score and instantly feel my spin tingling. For me it's as effective and iconic as John Williams' Jaws theme. And no, I'm not kidding. When I think about sharks, I hear John Williams creeping up on me. When I think about aliens, I imagine James Newton Howard trying to stab me in the back with a violin. I love it.
[Screenshots taken from Blu-ray.com]