The Watchers movie still
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102 min.
Release Date
The Watchers movie poster

In The Watchers, a listless Dakota Fanning plays Mina, a dour American who has escaped her traumatic past to Ireland. When her pet store boss asks her to drive a rare parrot to a Belfast zoo, she must, for some inexplicable reason, drive on an almost imperceptible road through ancient woods. The forest is not on any map and draws in lost souls “like moths to a flame,” explains the corny narration. Soon enough, she finds herself stranded; her only refuge is amid three others inside an isolated concrete building with a one-way window. There’s no way to escape the forest before nightfall; that’s when the mysterious, deadly creatures emerge to watch Mina and the others in their enclosure. Based on the 2022 book by A. M. Shine, the movie was written and directed by Ishana Night Shyamalan, daughter of The Sixth Sense (1999) filmmaker, in her feature debut. The film has a terrific setup and makes for an intriguing trailer, but our questions about what’s happening and who’s responsible have only disappointing answers. And worse, whatever potential The Watchers may have as a creature feature, Shyamalan-brand mindbender, or horror story steeped in Irish folklore, the execution is amateurish and graceless. 

At first, Mina responds in an oddly restrained manner to the news that she’s trapped indefinitely and subject to the voyeuristic eyes of monsters. She asks few questions of her fellow inhabitants in the “coop,” as their enclosure is called, probably because they supply her with endless exposition. Ciara (Georgina Campbell, from Barbarian), who lost her husband to the things in the woods; Daniel (Oliver Finnegan), a young oddball; and Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), who seems to know everything about the monsters, seem quite content to settle into their imprisonment. “You’ll get used to it, in time,” says Madeline, who explains that the chittering shadows lurking in the dark belong to a species known as changelings, faeries, or winged people—remnants of a long-ago war between humans and fantastical creatures. Eventually, this Lost-like scenario introduces a mysterious hatch, an elaborate scientific project, and various flashbacks. But like Lost, the questions are more compelling than the answers.  

From the outset, the symbolism in The Watchers is oppressively heavy-handed. Consider how Mina is a pet store employee who looks at animals in cages all day and later becomes the animal in the cage. As entertainment to their unseen audience of faeries, the only diversion they have is a DVD of a reality TV show, the garbage television equivalent of their situation. Mina also travels with a parrot who mimics her voice, only to be faced with a fantasy creature who, we learn, wants to imitate her. But she already has a double in her twin sister, not to mention her reflection in the large two-way mirror. Add to this symbolic hammering the clunky character notes where Mina asks her parrot, “What’s your story? What are you running from?” Lines like this underscore the film’s desperate attempt to establish Mina’s tragic backstory and give any of this meaning. And there are plenty more examples, recalling her father’s 2002 feature Signs in its symbolic intent announced by the title.

The Watchers movie stillPerhaps it’s unfair to compare the writer-director’s work to her father’s, but his influence feels apparent all over The Watchers. Its themes of an isolated structure in the middle of haunted woods recall The Village (2004), while the intermingling of folkloric creatures with contemporary humans rings of Lady in the Water (2006)—two shudderingly bad examples of the elder Shyamalan’s decline from Hollywood’s goodwill. Of course, Shine is responsible for the story, but it’s no wonder why the younger Shyamalan was drawn to such familiar material, given its similarity to her father’s output. Moreover, the two haven’t avoided any optics that may raise charges of nepotism; she worked on her father’s Apple TV+ series Servant and directed the second units of his last two features, Old (2021) and Knock at the Cabin (2023). And like many of her father’s stories, The Watchers starts with an excellent premise but falls apart once she unwraps that concept from its appealing package. 

The presentation also looks and sounds surprisingly uneven for a summer release from Warner Bros. Pictures. Cinematographer Eli Arenson shoots the forests in Ireland, delivering dark images that most theaters will struggle to project adequately, given the tendency among theater managers to dim bulbs to save on electrical costs and extend the bulb’s life. Certain scenes in my screening were visually unintelligible, which is not the filmmakers’ responsibility, but it undoubtedly impacted my enjoyment. Still, Arenson creates a few memorable sights, such as a shot from within the dark woods, looking at Mina and the others standing in the illuminated container. Such chilling imagery is contrasted by the generally cheap-looking CGI, which renders creatures similar to the monsters from I Am Legend (2007). Elsewhere, the dialogue is heavy with ADR, and Abel Korzeniowski’s score sounds synthetic and generic, as though composed on GarageBand. And it doesn’t help that most of what we hear is unintentionally funny and overly explanatory dialogue—most of it uttered by Fouéré, an Irish actor who went from a renowned stage career to starring in a series of bad horror movies, ranging from 2022’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre to this year’s Tarot

The Watchers reminded me of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010), except in the woods instead of a mansion, and instead of thrilling, it’s a bore. That’s about the worst thing any film can be: boring. Although it starts with a strong concept, little after the first 10 minutes conjures much interest. Mina’s emotional revelations are forced into the proceedings and struggle to evoke much genuine feeling. The other characters register as perfunctory and have no arcs worth remembering. At 102 minutes, the film drags, feeling far longer than it is, which is a sign of its failure to grab the viewer. Neither scary for its monsters-in-the-dark setup nor intriguing for its elaborate roots in Irish lore, The Watchers is a prime example of the unknown being more frightening than the known. Once the movie starts to reveal its secrets early on, its power over the viewer flounders from an overreliance on expositional dialogue and an unsatisfying resolution. 

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