Review: ‘The Watchers’ is a very bad movie, and a very good debut for Ishana Night Shyamalan SuperNayr

Since what I presume is the dawn of humanity, the phrase “Shyamalan film” has always evoked something unique within all of us; visions of a third act that ensures a story will not be tied up in a neat bow, of cinematography that boasts some markedly healthy singularity, and — more recently— of dialogue that only very occasionally sounds like it’s being spoken by actual human beings.

That has all changed with the emergence of The Watchers, the feature-length directorial debut of Ishana Night Shyamalan, who appears to have taken all of her father’s strengths and weaknesses, and made them her own. Now, when we hear the phrase “Shyamalan film,” those same visions that come so routinely for us, will now manifest in an entirely different yet uncannily familiar shape.

Make no mistake, The Watchers isn’t a good movie by most any stretch, but if it was the film’s job to introduce its creator to the world in as pronounced and unique a manner as possible, it certainly succeeds. It is a shame, however, that the sum of The Watchers‘ parts is far less interesting of a watch than Ishana’s career as a filmmaker will no doubt be.

The film stars Dakota Fanning as a troubled pet store employee named Mina who’s entrusted by her boss to deliver a rare yellow bird to a customer in a different city. But when her car breaks down in the middle of a forest, she suddenly falls to the mercy of the woodland, which happens to be home to a swath of unseen monsters that have sapped said woodland dry of said mercy. She finds refuge in a bunker with three other strangers, and reluctantly learns to live by the monsters’ rules, which includes allowing herself to be watched through the one-way window by the beasts, who seem to have a mysterious fascination with her and others.

Right from the opening scene, it’s clear that Ishana boasts plenty of strengths as an artist; she’s an incredibly capable director, particularly when tasked with navigating the “horror language” that genre enthusiasts will be all too familiar with. Her approach does not necessarily adhere to this language, but rather exists alongside it, finding a pace to her scare beats that’s entirely her own. This approach is rough around the edges, and doesn’t elicit nearly as many real scares as Ishana may have wanted it to, but it’s very easy to appreciate as both an artistic style and omen for what she’ll do next, if not a fully passable tactic in the present moment. In this way, Ishana is definitely her father’s daughter.

Unfortunately, Ishana also seems to have inherited the writing instincts that has brought us the likes of Old. Indeed, the plot and dialogue are nothing short of atrocious across the board, with cumbersome exposition, dreadfully useless lore dumps, and stilted conversations clogging up just about every corner of this film, including the ones where divulging backstories and urban myths make absolutely no sense in the context of the characters’ current plight.

Now, generally speaking, if you have a bad script, your film more or less falls apart at the seams in a way that can never be truly redeemed. Fanning seems to be a bit too aware of this for her own good, because the fact of Mina being an utterly forgettable protagonist is one that was born of how poorly she was written, but also of how meekly she was performed. It’s true that you can only do so much if the material is actively working against believability and the concept of storytelling, but that didn’t stop her co-stars Georgina Campbell and Oliver Finnegan (who portray Ciara and Daniel, two of the aforementioned strangers she meets in the bunker) from carving out some above-board screen presence in their own, idiosyncratic ways. It would have been nice to see Fanning do the same. Olwen Fouéré (who portrays the bunker’s de facto matriarch Madeline), meanwhile, is given the bulk of the most problematic dialogue to work through, and somehow manages to tow the line between “just intense enough to kind of offset the dire insanity of the plot” and “just composed enough to make you believe that she’s in control here.” The result isn’t anything remarkable, but perhaps that’s its own remarkability.

The monsters themselves are something of a mixed bag. We do eventually see what they look like, but The Watchers feels worse for it; it forces us to regard the world more literally than cerebrally, and that eventually snowballs into a film that doesn’t really inhabit much of a storytelling space whatsoever. That being said, there’s one scene in particular — namely, when we audiences palpably encounter the monsters for the first time — that’s genuinely mesmerizing and entirely ghastly in its presentation of the antagonists, and for all the film’s failings, scenes like that are an important victory for a genre as carnal as horror.

And yet, that doesn’t feel like much when you consider all the storytelling potential that the film’s set dressing did have. Throughout the entirety of the runtime, it’s no great task to extrapolate premises for four or five much smarter, much more interesting movies along The Watchers‘ severely bumpy road. There’s space aplenty to dive into the differences of how we present and regard ourselves, both with and without being beholden to the eyes of others, how our scientific urge to observe is chiefly rooted in control, and other such ideas that would have made for far better stories than this deeply contrived fairy tale. Even The Watchers‘ twist by itself would have made for a better movie if it had been used as the springboard.

All in all, The Watchers is a rousingly successful debut in the worst possible way; Ishana’s dexterous ability as a filmmaker is on full display here, as is her distinct identity as one. The fact that she’s found that so early in her career is something to be admired, celebrated, nurtured, and anticipated.

Her ability as a storyteller, however, is something that she’ll have to chisel away at for a while yet if she doesn’t intend on teaming up with a screenwriter for future projects, not only for her own artistic sake, but for the sake of her collaborators as well. Again, when you give your players a bad script, you’ve put an unfair ceiling on how far they can lift your movie up, and unfortunately, The Watchers just had too much dead weight for anyone or anything — even Ishana’s vision — to well and truly succeed here.

The Watchers

The excitement with which one can anticipate Ishana’s next directorial effort, is matched only by the dread of anticipating her next screenwriting effort.

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