‘The Watchers’ Review: The Shyamalan Dynasty Gets Off To A Slow Start

Ishana Night Shyamalan's debut film is a twisty, high-concept mystery/dark fairy tale. It's also a pale imitation of her father’s patented style.

Dakota Fanning in The Watchers. Jonathan Hession

It’s become a cliche to goof on that 2003 Newsweek cover that declared M. Night Shyamalan “The Next Spielberg,” just in time for his critical hot streak to cool off and plunge him into a decade-long drought. Instead, let’s start goofing on the way Night is becoming the next Coppola, hiring his close family as cast and crew in his occasionally self-financed productions in the effort to build a dynasty. Though they’ve been involved in M. Night’s projects for the past few years, 2024 marks the Summer of the Shyamalan Sisters, with both Saleka (age 27) and Ishana (age 24) stepping into the spotlight in front of and behind the camera, respectively. Saleka, a singer and songwriter, plays a massively successful pop star in M. Night’s latest feature, Trap, out this August. Ishana, an NYU Tisch graduate who has cut her teeth as a writer and director on her father’s Apple TV+ series Servant, has just made her feature directorial debut with The Watchers.

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THE WATCHERS (1/4 stars)
Directed by: Ishana Night Shyamalan
Written by: Ishana Night Shyamalan
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Georgina Campbell, Olwen Fouéré, Oliver Finnegan
Running time: 102 mins.

Even as someone who frequently whines about nepo babies, I feel a little crappy opening a review of a filmmaker’s first feature by writing about her father. I actually have way more respect for the way Ishana and Night have clung together on the press tour, never obscuring the nepotism at play, than I do for the countless young actors or directors whose deeply entrenched Hollywood legacies you have to dig around for on Wikipedia. Like any kind of privilege, nepotism doesn’t sting just because someone gets opportunities that others don’t, but because those who benefit get so defensive when it’s suggested that favorable conditions contributed to their success. Wear that name! Own that privilege! Be a good sport for the jokes, then prove the doubters wrong. Make us believe you’d have made it if you’d been just another kid from Philly.

But since I’ve gotten to this point in the review and have yet to go into any details about the film, you’ve likely guessed that The Watchers did not convince me of much. Worse, it is precisely what I’m sure the young director hoped it wouldn’t be—a pale imitation of her father’s patented style. The Watchers checks almost every box you’d expect from an M. Night film. It’s a twisty, high-concept mystery/dark fairy tale that follows a small cast across relatively few locations as they uncover each other’s secrets while spouting dialogue that sounds like it was written by a space alien. But The Watchers is missing the secret ingredient that transforms M. Night’s movies from weird, forgettable, self-indulgent fantasies into mesmerizing cinema: the mastery of blocking and camera movement that earned him the “next Spielberg” moniker in the first place.

Olwen Fouéré, Oliver Finnegan, Dakota Fanning and Georgina Campbell in The Watchers. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

The Watchers is based upon a novel by A.M. Shine with a premise that already sounds like a Shyamalan movie. A young pet shop employee with a dark past (Elle Fanning) is captured by strange, unseen beings who keep humans in a display cage and watch their behavior every night. But are she and the other three captives simply pets, or is there a more nefarious purpose behind it all? Like Signs, The Village, or Old (a movie I quite like, actually), it has the makings of a solid 30-minute Twilight Zone episode that overextends itself via a string of twists that each make the story less interesting. Like any good thriller, information is strategically withheld to build intrigue, but then it’s simply dropped in the audience’s lap with no impact at all. The characters are paper-thin, each reduced to essentially one trait that is explained by one underwhelming secret.

There is, however, a single shot that shook me awake and had me performing the “Pointing Rick Dalton” meme in the theater. Fanning and another captive (Olwen Fouéré) are hiding in the roots of a rotting tree as one of the monsters passes above them. The camera begins on the two women, tilts quickly up to catch a glimpse of the skittering monster, and then slowly returns to its initial position, where Fouéré’s character now has a hand clasped over Fanning’s mouth, stifling a scream. “There it is!” I nearly exclaimed aloud for the two other filmgoers at my screening. “There’s that good Shyamalan shit!” I was not stirred from my slumber a second time.

It is, of course, deeply unfair to expect cinematic mastery from a 24-year-old first-time director. People forget that before exploding onto the scene with The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan directed two other features that practically no one saw, even after he became Hollywood’s next big thing. Ishana Night Shyamalan’s first feature, released wide by Warner subsidiary New Line Pictures, is going to be critiqued more harshly by more outlets than most filmmakers’ work ever will be. That sucks, but that’s the other side of nepotism. The good news is that, as the offspring of a successful movie producer, Ishana Shyamalan is going to get another crack at directing a feature film if she wants it, regardless of whether or not the critical or box office response warrants it. You could call that deeply unfair, too, and she might very well agree with you. Fairness is not the issue here. The movie is bad. Her next one might be great. More artists should get the chance to try and fail like this, not just the ones with famous dads.

‘The Watchers’ Review: The Shyamalan Dynasty Gets Off To A Slow Start