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'The Watchers' Review: Ishana Night Shyamalan Crafted a Clunker

By Lindsay Traves | Film | June 7, 2024 |

By Lindsay Traves | Film | June 7, 2024 |

The Watchers banner.jpeg

There was heat coming off of Ishana Night Shyamalan, daughter of M. Night and Servant alumnus (she wrote ten episodes and directed six). Her feature debut, The Watchers came with so much promise: being adapted from a popular novel, boasting an electric cast, and the young Shyamalan at the helm. Unfortunately, it’s a real dud.

Shyamalan’s take on the novel naturally has to skip some beats and also adds and adapts a few. Dakota Fanning leads as Mina, a woman who is hiding from her past, as made evident by her being a wig-wearing American in Ireland who has missed voicemails from her twin sister, noting, “It’s been fifteen years.” On assignment from her job at a pet store, Mina drives a bird through some windy roads and, en route, gets lost and finds herself in seemingly haunted woods. She quickly stumbles upon Madeline (Olwen Fouéré) and her gang, a motley crew of people who got lost in the woods and now submit to “the watchers.” During the day, the humans forage and enjoy the sun, but at night, must lock themselves in “the coop,” a fortified space with a large glass window so the watchers can gaze upon them. Mina, a scrappier woman with less to lose, isn’t so quick to submit to Madeline and her rules so sets off to attempt to escape the coop and make it back to reality.

The story seems a compelling setup for psychological horror. Zombie movies, apocalyptic monster movies (like A Quiet Place or Birdbox), and the like try to thrive in the fear and discomfort of having to make it work with other humans during the end of the world as you know it. Mina stumbles across an old woman with strict rules, a younger woman with a missing husband, and a young man who laments his abusive father. They’re now all trapped in a room, being told they can’t leave. But instead of focusing on that fear, hegemony, or authority (like, say, 10 Cloverfield Lane or The Village), the film sprints to the escape and final act, only taking time to breathe when it’s to show long shots of the watchers or drown us in cliché exposition. (“They go by many names,” is uttered in earnest).

While there are shades of others and while this film doesn’t have that much in common with Birdbox, the reason the comparison is apt is because of Birdbox working as a streaming movie. Before streamers were the media giants they are now, there were conversations about how movies don’t need to be great; they just need to be there. Something about The Watchers makes it feel like the kind of movie that looks nice when you glance over at it and is built around an audience giving divided attention. Things are shown and then told, moments are repeated, and more time is spent on explanation than tension. As a result, there’s a rhythm problem that makes the movie — which does not spend enough time padding its middle — feel like a slow crawl.

Whether they’re relics of the novel, or additions by Shyamalan, the symbolism feels as tired and clunky as the dialogue. The watchers are mimics, so someone is a twin, and she also wears wigs, also there’s a talking bird, the window is a two-way mirror, and so forth. These might be compelling, but they feel superfluous in a film that has no time to expand upon the meat that makes the story interesting or exciting. Discussing the novel with a friend and reading about it thereafter, it feels exceedingly disappointing to know what could have been. Scenes where someone does something unexpected just feel weird, while a meatier version in print built up to a person cracking.

I said earlier that the movie looks nice, and it does. The use of light is gorgeous, especially the play on natural blues as against stark orange artificial light (though glowing-headache-inducing white might have been cool, too) looks gorgeous. The film features a lot of mirror shots that are beautiful and impossible, which makes for a visual feast that’s a less dreamlike version of shots in Inception. Fans of Servant will appreciate a story built on vibes, and the visual vibes here do a lot of work. Where the imagery loses steam is in its stagnation. The weather hardly changes (yet we are told via exposition that the winter means less time in sunlight to forage outside), characters never get thinner, dirtier, or grow hair. The scenes are stunning, but there’s almost no visual storytelling.

Shyamalan remains promising, she has experience and pedigree and thus what it takes to stand on her own. However, this bundle of conversation and creatures is not going to be the resume highlight for the young filmmaker. Maybe something about streaming has us lost in the sauce, but I’d defer to streamer faves like Significant Other or In the Tall Grass to get your spooky people-acting-buck-in-greenery on and if you check Instagram a couple times throughout, so be it, I guess.

The Watchers hits theaters June 7, 2024