A still of Dakota Fanning from The Watchers
A still of Dakota Fanning from The Watchers

The Watchers Movie Review: Never quite reaches the cinematic high it aspires towards

Like almost any Shyamalan film after Signs and before Split, this folklore horror film is ambitious to the hilt but fails to leverage the full potential of its genre
The Watchers(2.5 / 5)

Ishana Shyamalan’s The Watchers feels like a quintessential M Night Shyamalan film on multiple counts. Eerie atmosphere. Characters who live in fear of the unknown and mysterious creatures on the other side of the land they occupy (a la The Village). The tendency to throw major curveballs at the characters with very little explanation (a la The Happening). The film unravels through a combination of slow pace and quick edits. The good old Shyamalan twist, or what the filmmaker once described as staccato. It is all there in the feature film debut of Shyamalan’s daughter, Ishana. And, like almost any Shyamalan film after Signs and before Split, the folklore horror film is ambitious to the hilt but never quite reaches the full ambit of its genre.

Director: Ishana Shyamalan

Cast: Dakota Fanning, Olwen Fouere, Georgina Campbell, Oliver Finnegan

The story is fairly simple, but fans of Shyamalan know that it is more about the execution than the plot. A female artist named Mina (Dakota Fanning) gets stranded in an Irish forest while en route to deliver a talking parrot named Darwin. Soon, she realises that there are people who spend each night, fearful of their lives, in a glass-sealed building called “The Coop” and respect certain rules so as not to upset a mysterious set of creatures known as The Watchers. These creatures, whose origins go as far back as the times of coexistence between humans and fairies, keep an eye on the Coop’s residents the entire time. The Watchers have the ability to disturb human minds; they have the ability to shapeshift and imitate the residents. A sense of gloom and doom sets in with Mina the moment she enters the place, just like the rest of the people there, partly because she herself is struggling with her own demons. The residents have to keep their wits about them throughout the night, lest they become victims of the Watchers, while also doing just enough to survive. Unsurprisingly, then, the only witty element in the life of Mina comes from the parrot, as it tells her to “try not to die” as she goes beyond a point of no return in the forest (it is gallows humour at its best). More ironically, they spend their nights in the glass room watching reality TV, where the drama stems from concepts of isolation and putting people with different mindsets in close quarters, and sometimes even grooving to soft music.

These are all really solid ideas on paper, but Ishana’s storytelling style unfortunately does not allow them to pop. The film spends too much time building up the story than having some fun with its premise. It does not always help that the film takes itself a little too seriously. Despite all these flaws, there is just enough in the way of worldbuilding and characterisation in The Watchers to enjoy. For example, the whole deal of existing in the forest without any purpose forces Mina and the others to confront the fact that there is potentially no grand purpose to life and that tragedy can strike with no specific reason. There is one fascinating scene where Fanning stares at the large piece of glass in the Coop and stares endlessly at the sheer vacuum in front of her. It is an image that stays with you long after you leave the cinema halls. Such delightful touches are few and far between, but once you realise that the film is not the masterpiece it seeks to be, you reconcile with the fact that at least it has these memorable visuals. Moreover, the anticipation of the trademark Shyamalan twist keeps you on your seat—just not on the proverbial edge.

Cinema Express