The Watchers REVIEW – Barely Worth Watchering

The Watchers movie

Just under a year and half after Brandon Cronenberg made a disappointing film that hewed too closely to the work of his father, Ishana Night Shyamalan (daughter of M. Night) has done the same. In fact, The Watchers is an even greater disappointment than Infinity Pool.

The trouble begins (and perhaps ends?) with the fact that the film is an adaptation of A.M. Shine’s novel of the same name.

The story of a young woman who finds herself among three strangers in a bunker in a remote Irish forest surrounded by unseen creatures that watch them at night plays out largely as you would expect. There’s the establishment of rules from the most veteran bunkerite, the transgressing of those rules, the consequences of the transgression, and so on. Add to all this the frankly exhausting inclusion of a childhood trauma backstory for our heroine Mina (Dakota Fanning ) and you’ve got a perfect storm of elements we’ve seen many times and seen done better at least some of those times.

In adapting the novel Shyamalan, as writer, flounders in plot points and lore, seemingly unwilling to give up any aspect of the book. The film is overstuffed to the point that several scenes in the final third feel as if they’re meant to set up a sequel only to lead into yet another mini-adventure. While the lore of the film’s titular watchers is undeniably interesting, the exposition drops feel almost like powerpoints designed to make sure no one gets confused.

That fear of audience idiocy extends to dialogue on a more moment-to-moment basis as well. One of two characters actively hiding from the mysterious watchers says to the other “they’re looking for us,” when a hidden door is revealed late in the film, someone says “it’s a door.” It’s bleak stuff.

There’re also the film’s themes, unsurprisingly about watching and emphasized with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, that might be interesting in a film less concerned that viewers aren’t understanding it. Characters regularly talk about watching, there are close ups of eyes, and in a plot point that’s almost unbelievable, the only available entertainment for the watched people is a DVD of a season of reality TV.

Most dangerously and damningly for Shyamalan, though: there’s a twist. It’s a bold choice to adapt a novel with a twist when your father is M. Night Shyamalan, but to adapt a novel with an obvious and telegraphed twist seems foolish.

The clunky, overlong, and often downright bad script doesn’t fall apart immediately. The first third of the film, as Mina enters the forest and the mystery builds, work well enough and Shyamalan has a talent for creating suspense. One rule breaking outing builds slowly and perfectly deploys a slow pan and zoom into darkness to deliver a genuinely edge-of-your-seat sequence. But as the film goes on it falls prey to its many adaptational problems.

Shyamalan generally seems to have a better handle on the visual and aesthetic elements of filmmaking than writing. The film’s score, from composer Abel Korzeniowski, is overbearing in a way that adds to the dread of being trapped in an inescapable forest. The sound design of the watchers’ movements is fantastically grating and frightening because it’s so unrecognizable as anything of this world. Shyamalan regularly employs focus pulling, panning, and zooms to elicit tension and draw the audience further into the characters’ confused and anxious point of view.

She’s a talented if not exactly unique visual stylist who can put together an effective horror set piece. But the choice of adapting this novel, and the choices made in the adaptation, leave me hoping she directs someone else’s script next time.

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The Watchers movie
The Watchers starts well enough but its script grows worse as it goes on and the film’s effective scares and stylish direction can’t save it.