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The Watchers

When it comes to kooky, creative thrillers, Shyamalan is practically a brand. Though M. Night is the present precedent for this surname, his daughter Ishana hopes to carry the torch into the next generation, making a name for herself in a similar genre. Based on the book by A.M. Shine, “The Watchers” is Ishana Night Shyamalan’s directorial debut, a fabled narrative that seesaws between fantastical whimsy and proposed horrific terror with lots of ambition but little finesse.

Mina (Dakota Fanning) is a lost soul. A twentysomething American living in Galway, she spends her days working at a pet shop and her nights cosplaying at bars as anyone but herself. When her car breaks down in the middle of a dense, directionless wood, Mina is forced to search for help. As the sun sets and every bird occupying the forest springs into a shrill, hurried flight, she’s left as (seemingly) the only living thing around. The woods become taunting: dark, growling, and with something giving chase. With her car nowhere in sight, Mina begins to run, encountering a small bunker with a woman at the door, Madeleine (Olwen Fouere), who ushers her inside. 

Also in this bunker, which they refer to as “The Coop,” resides Ciara (Georgina Campbell) and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan). The coop consists of three walls and a large one-way window, which serves as a mirror for them and a display for the forest creatures, the titular watchers. Every night, the group must greet them at the window, standing in line like shop window mannequins, and allow themselves to be observed. Madeline, Ciara, and Daniel have been trapped for months in the forest, whose labyrinthine layout and immeasurable density make it near-impossible to find a way out before dark. Their survival, and now Mina’s, hinges on a simple set of rules, the most important of which are to be in the coop before nightfall and be on time to greet the watchers when they arrive. The day is safe. but the night is not, and failure to abide by the rules is communicated to be a brutal, violent death.

Shyamalan bites off much more than she can chew with “The Watchers.” The architecture of the source material provides much to play with in terms of worldbuilding, set pieces, and character development, but Shyamalan’s limited toolbox is brutally on display. “The Watchers” lacks creative vision and guts, with only a clumsy script to fall back on. Riddled with vapid dialogue and wish-washy commitment to the genre, it struggles to establish its identity and maturity level. Madeleine's character cyclically warns against the vociferous violence of the watchers, but the film is scant to make you believe in it. It lacks teeth. The stylistic choices resemble the hopscotch cartoony, kid-friendly horror found in films like “The Haunted Mansion” and a few sequences that aim to draw blood, more in the styles of a James Wan classic like “Insidious.” Shyamalan is best when leaning mystic rather than macabre, but her execution feels like blindfolded cherry picking, and “The Watchers” becomes flimsy by consequence. 

The actual design of the forest creatures is quite compelling in the dark. Nighttime sequences of silhouettes and fractional details inspire tension and buy us into the scare factor, but Shyamalan makes the classic mistake, thrusting them into the light and replacing monstrosity with the familiarity of an overused design. The exception here is when the watchers are closer to their final form, approaching an uncanny valley territory that’s imperfect but sufficient. 

“The Watchers” concerns itself thematically with the idea of duplication and voyeurism. From Mina’s peripherally mentioned twin sister, to the mimicking parrot from the pet shop she totes throughout the film, and the lore of the watchers, Shyamalan juggles ideas of individuality with Darwinian survival. The coop functions as a sort of stage, and the one DVD the group has for entertainment is a single season of “The Lair of Love,” a clear parody of “Love Island.” This parallel of an isolated group housed together to be watched for the entertainment of others is apparent, but the thesis is not. It could be that Shyamalan is taking a meta stab at the act of performance itself via the coop, an argument towards the behaviors and quotables we mimic from the world of reality TV, or perhaps how we model ourselves on the basis of celebrity, but the thinness of her pen leaves this as a hypothesis rather than a complete thought.

Performances suffer in “The Watchers,” falling victim to an unrefined script and a plethora of confounding line deliveries. As we take mental notes on the origin of the watchers, even the characters seem confused by their own words. This exposition-heavy dialogue combats characters speaking exactly their thoughts, leaving little nuance for the actors to craft. Fanning plays Mina’s hollowness well, her stoicism and seriousness shielding trauma, but she falls flat in moments that require elevation and desperation. Campbell, who’s finding her own corner in the horror sphere (“Barbarian,” “Black Mirror,” “Bird Box”), is the most interesting to watch, and the fact that she has the least dialogue is a likely testament as to why. 

“The Watchers” doesn’t leave room to breathe between crash courses in lore, heavy dialogue, and a bloated narrative. Shyamalan falters in picking between a fairytale and a horror story, and the film's potential gets lost in her indecision. Though ideas and attempts at depth are present, they’re thin, and the film fails to stand its ground. “The Watchers” prompts curiosity that’s never entirely fulfilled, displaying a director who is ambitious but still very much at the foundational levels of her artistry. 

Peyton Robinson

Peyton Robinson is a freelance film writer based in Chicago, IL. 

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Film Credits

The Watchers movie poster

The Watchers (2024)

Rated PG-13

102 minutes

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