The Watchers Review: Forest Jump

Having worked as second-unit director on Old and Knock at the Cabin, Ishana Night Shyamalan learned at the hands of her father, M. Night, how to create atmosphere and scares. What she didn’t pick up — and one doesn’t once production has begun, if everything goes right — is his ability to write a script. Granted, her dad can, at times, be far from perfect in that department, but even the most ludicrous story by Shyamalan Senior (Lady in the Water is the correct answer) doesn’t have the plot holes and excess exposition of The Watchers. To be fair, some of that comes from the source material, a novel by A.M. Shine, and some feel like studio-mandated notes to eliminate any “confusing” parts.

Whatever the case, the unfortunate outcome is that while the younger Shyamalan takes a big swing with a crazy amount of mythology for her movie’s relatively simple set-up, she mostly misses. The best one can say is that there’s enough good stuff here to offer hope she’ll do better next time.

Fanning the Flames

Dakota Fanning plays Mina, an American expat working at a pet shop in Galway, Ireland. Tasked with delivering a rare bird to a zoo in Belfast, she follows her unreliable GPS into a deep forest that, much like the Blair Witch’s woods, appears to be actively disorienting her. As night falls, she follows a mysterious old woman into a one-room cabin with two other occupants and is swiftly debriefed with rules of survival. They are being watched through the cabin’s giant two-way mirror window by mysterious, dangerous beings that fear daylight. The creatures observe them as if watching reality TV, with an incessant curiosity that has them coming back every night. They must not turn their backs to the mirror at night, and if they hope to survive, they can only go outside during the day. Also, it’s probably a good idea to stay clear of the giant burrows found throughout the woods.

The mystery set-up is as simple as the answer is convoluted as all hell. Let’s just say Shyamalan clearly loves Lost just as much as her father’s works. There are a lot of plot points to juggle here, and a few fall to the ground with a thud, but some occasionally soar. She draws portentous parallels to pets in cages, parrots that mimic, and 24-7 reality shows like Big Brother, but doesn’t have anything interesting to say about them beyond, “Hey, this thing is kind of similar to that thing!” The comparisons neither enlighten each other nor draw on real-life fears and pitfalls related to such things.

Trees Scrounge

While we’re talking real-life analogues versus fantasy, though, kudos for making an Irish forest look scary, with every single tree branch looking like it’s been carved into a large, stabby thorn. In fact, Ireland is one of the safest places to get lost in the woods, as literally none of the wildlife is capable of killing you. Stir in some pagan mythology, though, and all of a sudden, the imagination runs wild. Mystic runes suddenly appearing on car radio displays and smartphones may be overkill on the part of the supernatural forces, but perhaps electromagnetic anomalies simply explain everything.

Look, this is from a horror novel that has twin sisters named Lucy and Mina, and if you think that’s a gratuitously obvious tribute to Ireland’s own Bram Stoker, wait till you see the tributes to everything else. The creature effects are wonderful, splitting just the right amount of difference between seen and unseen, and The Watchers does scarier things with crows than I’ve seen in a while. But it also adds plot points that beggar belief. Are we truly to believe, for example, that after five months of captivity in a single room, nobody ever thought to look under the rug?

Coop Troupe

Fanning’s fine at the head of a mostly forgettable cast; besides her, the standout is acclaimed Irish stage actress Olwen Fouere as the longest-running captive of the Watchers. Filling out the room are Georgina Campbell and Oliver Finnegan, who are mostly there to deliver exposition and do the stupid things folks aren’t supposed to do in horror situations. Production design by Lola’s Ferdia Murphy is first-rate — Galway’s natural scenery lends a big assist, but the way the bunker they call “the coop” lights up at night against unfamiliar foliage to become a de facto TV set for evil voyeurs is gorgeously creepy.

If only the story weren’t so determined to over-explain everything, and in ways that leave plot holes as big as the Watchers’ burrows, at that. Most of it comes directly from the book, and we can perhaps hardly expect Shyamalan to exert Kubrickian disregard for fealty on her first time at bat. As her dad found out the hard way doing The Last Airbender, though, perhaps adaptation isn’t where Shyamalan’s talents are best put to use. It’s possible to imagine a more abstract director having irreverent, surreal fun with the material, but this one isn’t yet up to the challenge of making it a smart story.

The Big Question…

Ah, but does Ishana love twists as much as her dad? Let’s just say a lot depends on whether something you’ll totally see coming — way before any of the oblivious characters do — can constitute such a thing.

Grade: 2.5/5

The Watchers opens in theaters on June 7.