The Watchers (2024)

JUNE 10, 2024


The 2010 film Devil (which I quite liked) was supposed to be the first of a series of films produced by M. Night Shyamalan but written and directed by others, which seemed like a good idea to me. Unfortunately those other films never materialized, and it’s only now, 14 years later, that we are finally getting another movie where the polarizing but never boring filmmaker is only hand as a producer. But he didn’t go far to find a filmmaker for his long-awaited sophomore effort as an exec, as The Watchers is directed and written by his own daughter, Ishana Night Shyamalan. It's an odd choice, I must say, to make a debut under the shadow of a very famous (and again, polarizing) filmmaker that’s also an adaptation of a novel (a faithful one at that, best I can tell – more on that soon). It’s hard to gauge one’s abilities as a storyteller when they’re not only telling someone else’s story, but also doing one that’s right within the wheelhouse of the guy whose name put a few more butts in seats.

Then again, since the movie isn’t particularly great, maybe it was a smart move. It’s hard to blame her for its lapses when she was faithfully adapting another person’s story. I never read AM Shine’s novel (which came out only a few years ago, so I can assume the pandemic inspired its "trapped in a room" scenario), but I looked at a detailed synopsis online and the film keeps all of its beats—including the goofy ending—intact as written. From what I can gather, the main difference seems to be that the novel focused on a power conflict between the two main characters, and in the film that’s more or less just a couple of arguments early on. The plot, for those who haven’t seen the trailer 900 times over the past few months, concerns Mina (Dakota Fanning), an odd young woman who works in a pet store and goes out at night pretending to be someone else (complete with a wig) to initiate one night stands. Her boss tasks her with delivering a rare bird to a buyer who lives way off the beaten path somewhere, and since this is a genre movie, her car breaks down before getting to her destination. Attempting to walk her way to civilization, she is menaced by unseen creatures, only for an older woman to appear and tell her that she must join her inside a little bunker, “right now!”

While it’d be funny if Mina said “No thanks” and the movie continued following her through the woods without mentioning the bunker again, alas she does as instructed, and learns about her predicament. The creatures, aka The Watchers, can’t come out during the day but at night they want to watch the people in the bunker, who are seen through a wall that’s essentially a two way mirror. The older woman, Madeline, is played by Olwen Fouéré, so naturally it’s on her to explain a lot of this exposition, though the other two people in the bunker, a young guy named Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) and a 30ish woman named Ciara (Barbarian’s Georgina Campbell), chip in from time to time. Naturally Mina doesn’t want to stay there and keeps trying to find a way out of the forest, but her plans are continually foiled and she eventually learns to listen to the others when they say “You can’t get out!” There are “point of no return” markers around the forest, and the idea is that if you cross one, there’s no way you can get back to the bunker before nightfall (that these markers exist even though another plot point concerns the days getting shorter is a plot hole we just have to accept). But with the forest so vast and without anything to help guide them, they can’t risk continuing to run straight past the marker and just *hope* to reach safety, so the markers keep them in place.

So the first half or so of the movie is just… that. They run outside and look for supplies, then run back and kind of hang out for the Watchers’ amusement. It’s not a very compelling story (I suspect on the page it’d have the internal monologues of its characters to at least flesh them out), so you’re just kind of waiting to get answers, even when you know they’re probably not going to be very satisfying. There’s an opening scene with a guy running through the woods and eventually being attacked that should have been saved for when Mina arrived, because then she could have learned at the same time we did what the stakes actually were. Instead the audience is ahead of her, so it’s rather frustrating watching her essentially catch up to what we’ve known before we even met her. To make up for it, we are teased flashbacks to why she's ducking calls from her sister and how their mother died, but I can't say it's enough to make her into a well rounded protagonist.

Once they (spoiler) find a secret room under their bunker things pick up. We meet a new character, get an info dump, a change of scenery, etc. But of course, once we start getting all of the information, the movie reaches a critical point, where you’re either going to go along with the reveals, or laugh them off the screen. I don’t want to spoil the particulars, but I was reminded of three movies that I’ll hint at: one of Shyamalan’s less loved films of the ‘00s, another Irish horror that’s fairly recent, and the sophomore film from a modern genre titan. If you can figure out which three movies I am referring to, The Watchers is basically a stew of all those, with a dash of Quiet Place for good measure (that one’s not a spoiler, you can tell as much from the trailer). And not for nothing, but they're all more interesting.

I mean it’s not BAD, really, it’s just very uninvolving. Our characters learn the truth from an info dump presented via video logs on a computer, so there’s not much of a feeling of discovery. The characters themselves aren’t very interesting, and their conflicts get resolved bizarrely quickly (at one point Daniel locks Mina and Madeline outside, but once he finally lets them in, there’s no real repercussion or continued antagonism, everyone just forgets it within minutes). And the last 20 minutes take place away from the woods entirely, so the confined/claustrophobic setup is long gone by the time the credits roll. Mina’s backstory is doled out through a few flashbacks, one of which is a terrific jolt, but what it tells us seems to be foreshadowing an ending that the movie (or book) doesn’t have, and it also breaks up the claustrophobic setting, so I’m not quite sure why it was presented in this fashion.

Ultimately, to me it felt like a movie that was designed more for a streaming service, which is to say: for people to half watch while looking at their phones. It’s all just kind of there, never really coming to life or paying off its occasionally interesting-sounding bits (there’s a line about extra fingers that had me thinking that it might be a takedown of AI, but alas, no such luck). The actors are fine, the scenery is lovely, and I appreciated the goofy final moments just on sheer spectacle alone (again, without spoiling, but when ______ suddenly has ______ as they make their exit, I nearly applauded at the randomness), but I guarantee if I didn’t write this review today, less than 48 hours after seeing it, I’d have trouble remembering much else this time next week.

What say you?


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