The Watchers (AKA The Watched) review – M Night Shyamalan’s daughter tells us a silly old story

Estimated read time 5 min read

It’s a big year for the Shyamalan clan, bullishly expanding into the spotlight with such runaway speed that one assumes an accompanying reality show might also be in the offing. This summer, singer Saleka Shyamalan will star as a pop star in her father M Night’s Josh Hartnett-led thriller Trap, having previously contributed songs for his Apple show Servant and 2021 thriller Old. Before that, the Oscar-nominated film-maker is also ushering his daughter Ishana’s directorial debut into cinemas, Irish fantasy horror The Watchers (weirdly retitled The Watched for the UK and Ireland), his middle child having already worked with him on both the big and small screen. It’s hard to separate her film entirely from such lineage; in fact the marketing obviously insists that we don’t, and while there are reminders of her father’s work here, they’re too often of his films we’d rather not be reminded of …

When cards are being held closest, there’s some propulsive intrigue to the predicament that heroine Mina (Dakota Fanning) finds herself in. She’s an American loner living in Ireland, glumly working at a pet store in her days and hooking up with strangers in the nights following. She’s sent on a trip to deliver a unique bird to a Belfast zoo but her journey there somehow lands her in the middle of a mysterious, tech-killing forest, her phone and car dead within minutes. After trying, and failing, to find a way out, she’s lured towards a lone building where there are three people sheltering (Barbarian breakout Georgina Campbell, former child actor Oliver Finnegan and Irish stage actor turned horror stalwart Olwen Fouéré). She’s then told of the unusual situation they’re in and the strict rules that must be enforced. There are undefined creatures living in the woods who only come out when sunlight is gone and they insist on watching the human inhabitants through a one-way window.

It’s a familiar drip drip of mystery setting up a string of questions we start to demand satisfying answers from, based around Mina’s past hinted at in flashbacks, the origins of the hidden creatures and the overall trustworthiness of the set-up. But while we’re compelled along by an urge to know the film’s secrets, convinced that like-father-like-daughter, a twist is on the way, it’s clear from the outset that we are being guided by far unsteadier hands. As a writer, Ishana is often distractingly inelegant, stumbling over AM Shine’s source material in her attempts to explain Mina’s situation, Fouéré forced once again into the increasingly annoying role of genre oracle (she played it just last month in Tarot, another throwaway horror flick). There are so many ungainly info dumps that at times it feels more like an elevated video game, characters waiting for us to come close enough so they can vomit out yet more robotically written lore. Initially the film recalls The Village, a film which also saw characters forced to obey rules or risk the wrath of unseen monsters, but as flawed as that film might have been, it was at least built on a sturdier foundation.

As The Watchers/Watched progresses and the bigger picture comes into focus, a smattering of effective moments (a late-night reveal of what’s being faced is skilfully lit and nightmarishly designed, showing that Ishana may be a better director than writer) are lost in a mess of ridiculous mythology and poor attempts at Big Issue symbolism. There are nods towards reality TV, social media, AI, colonialism and the inevitable horror buzzword trauma, but all they serve to do is make the inevitable last act reveal seem that much more laughably silly in comparison, and of course terribly overexplained. Any of the suspense or dread the film might have built up (of which there could have been a truckload more) turns to mush when the horror turns hokey and another M Night movie is recalled, to tell which would be a spoiler but it is … not a compliment. The worst thing about the back half is that things aren’t just stupid but they’re also boring, the deadliest sin in this genre.

Matters aren’t helped by a disastrously flat lead performance from Fanning, underacting to the point of barely turning up. She’s avoided the pitfall of other former child stars, who continue to precociously overemphasise into their older years, but she’s gone too far in the other direction, listlessly reciting perfunctory dialogue as if she’d rather be anywhere else. By the end, we can empathise.

This article was amended on 6 June 2024 because M Night Shyamalan has been nominated for an Oscar, but is not an Oscar-winning film-maker as an earlier version said.

  • The Watchers aka The Watched is out in US cinemas on 7 June and in the UK on 14 June


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