Don’t Bother With Watching The Watchers

Ishana Night Shyamalan's first feature is riddled with exhausting exposition.

Warner Bros.
Inverse Reviews

The profoundly creepy sensation of being observed from the darkness underscores The Watchers, Ishana Night Shyamalan's feature debut. However, despite a premise loaded with unsettling potential, the film — adapted from A.M. Shine's eponymous novel — ends up a tremendous bore. We're told, through verbose and plentiful dialogue alone, that this tale is one of deep regret, while Shyamalan's occasionally effective filmmaking hints at other rich thematic possibilities that her movie never seems to grasp.

Comparisons to the filmmaker's famous father, The Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan, will undoubtedly abound, but the younger Shyamalan is her own artistic voice — for better and for worse. Through an in-media-res opening scene of a man being chased through a labyrinthine forest at dusk, Shyamalan displays a deft command of atmosphere, as unseen creatures chase down the hapless soul and drag him off-screen. A more languid introduction comes next: lonely American twentysomething Mina (Dakota Fanning) works at a pet store in Galway, Ireland. Mina has a reserved and dour disposition, but there’s not much to her beyond this.

Dakota Fanning’s Mina doesn’t get much to do beyond react to her increasingly strange circumstances.

Warner Bros.

When Mina is sent to deliver a rare parrot to a zoo a few towns over, she ends up stranded in the aforementioned maze-like thicket. Before long, she starts seeing (and hearing) things as well and is forced to take refuge in a strange, modernist cabin in the middle of nowhere. Trapped in this cramped space with three other characters who also lost their way — the older, silver-haired Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), and two other characters Mina’s age, Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) and Ciara (Georgina Campbell) — Mina must follow their strict rules in order to survive. To make it through the night, they have to present themselves before the cabin's enormous window — which only shows them their reflection — as the movie's unseen monsters emerge from the dark forest and observe from afar.

The first time this premise unravels is disorienting in the most delightful way, given the sheer speed at which Mina and the audience are bombarded with information and action all at once. However, as each night passes — and each day, during which the characters can comfortably leave their confines up to a certain distance — dialogue becomes the movie’s default mode of expression. It’s always plainly delivered, geared mostly toward repeating information, rather than deepening our understanding of Mina or the other characters.

The Watchers watch... or are they being watched?

Warner Bros.

A handful of jump scares prove Shyamalan can deliver the occasional cheap thrill, but when she tries to inject her story with philosophical heft it crumbles under its own weight. Each time Madeline casually tosses out more lore or the camera catches another glimpse of the "watchers," a gradual demystification lessens the impact of each subsequent set piece.

What's more, Shyamalan doesn't often recognize what's right in front of her. Without giving too much away, the forest around the characters seems to have hallucinatory properties, which forces them to see people from their lives. However, the film never uses this to much dramatic effect, even after it establishes scenarios where it could come in handy. Mina's backstory, for instance, involves an estranged twin sister, but the movie doesn't take advantage of these and other character details to explore the notion of reflection, in all its literal and metaphorical meanings. Fouéré almost seems cast and designed to resemble an older Fanning, presenting Shyamalan with the opportunity to have her protagonist ruminate, in some fashion, on her own future, or on the amount of time she might have to spend in this scenario (how long Madeline has been there is a mystery too). But these are, at best, concepts the viewer might have to intellectualize and pluck out of thin air — in the hopes that they might amount to something — rather than intentional choices aimed at getting the audience to think about the numerous ways people can become each other’s reflections.

Worse yet, the film's premise, involving characters forced to ritualistically pose before a rectangular window — like a movie screen — for an audience they cannot see, is never once approached as any kind of aesthetic meta-commentary on the cinematic. The more Shyamalan peels back the story’s layers, the more thuddingly straightforward it becomes about the experience of being observed (and thus, the less psychologically and viscerally engaging it feels). The film even moves in a timely direction at one point, when the supernatural "watchers" try to conjure impersonations of our heroes to spook and deceive them. However, they can't seem to get the details right, like human hands, echoing the uncanny terror of generative AI poorly imitating what it "sees" before regurgitating something soulless. However, the relationship between what lies on either side of the cabin’s letterbox-shaped window is only ever limited to the literal. The novice Shyamalan doesn't seem particularly interested in probing beneath the surface of the images she creates.

The Watchers isn’t interested in the meta-commentary that its intriguing premise seems to pose.

Warner Bros.

The Watchers is, in some ways, a reversal of The Village, M. Night’s romantic horror film about people retreating from their pain. That movie, now 20 years old, used its mythology to create physical and emotional confines around the characters, all of which were rooted in primal fears of the unknown and unseen. The Watchers, though it similarly surrounds its characters with invisible beasts, merely has them discuss the limits placed upon them as they verbally recall elements of their past they hope to escape — but only when it's narratively convenient. They rarely behave like people who carry their troubles with them, and dread is seldom embodied by the sound and images. Placing the characters in this uncanny space does little to exacerbate their existing fears and follies. And unlike the creatures in The Village, the more we see and hear of the "watchers," the less they feel tethered to (or symbolic of) any recognizable emotional reality.

Shyamalan offers hints of intriguing flourishes. Everyone around Mina is presented in shallow focus, with blurred physical features, until she arrives in the forest, as though she were completely isolated until discovering a makeshift family. But these are mere gestures towards thoughtful filmmaking. Shyamalan has certainly proven capable in the past, with her tightly-wound episodes of the M. Night-produced Servant on Apple TV+, though the biggest difference therein is that her television work involved playing in someone else's sandbox. When it comes to crafting her own world, she's unfortunately shackled by an inability to make her ideas and images coalesce, resulting in a horror movie that’s all bark and very little bite.

The Watchers opens in theaters on June 7.

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