The Falling Apple — The Watchers

William J Hammon
9 min readJun 12, 2024


I try not to let certain factors enter my personal calculus when it comes to watching a film, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. For instance, the idea of so-called “nepo babies,” a gag-inducing bit of cutesiness used to mock or denigrate (sometimes playfully, sometimes very much not) those who receive opportunities and powerful positions due to family influence. It happens in pretty much every industry, from fail-son finance bros to political scions, but it’s especially pronounced in entertainment, where a successful relative can open many a door that would be otherwise closed to their kin, regardless of skill level.

It’s impossible to look at The Watchers, the debut feature from Ishana Night Shyamalan, outside of that context. Ishana is the daughter of (in)famous horror/suspense auteur M. Night Shyamalan, and has previously worked with her father as a writer/director on his AppleTV show, Servant, as well as directing the Second Unit on Old and Knock at the Cabin. Still in her mid-20s, Ishana has gotten chances that many hopefuls can only dream of until they’ve gotten several major credits under their belts (if they ever get them at all), and Warner Bros. was definitely banking on her father’s talents (or at least marketability) rubbing off on her as they gave her the reins on her first solo project.

This was one of my most anticipated films of the year, because whether you like M. Night’s films, you can’t deny that they’re interesting, for better AND worse, and he does have an intriguing cinematic eye honed through a lifelong love of the artform. At minimum, the curiosity is built in with a picture like The Watchers, because we all want to see what Ishana has learned from her A-list dad, whether she’ll be able to forge her own path, and of course, if she’ll succumb to the same trappings of his less-than-stellar outings.

The overall verdict is something of a mixed bag. You can definitely tell that Ishana has learned the technical aspects of the craft well from M. Night’s tutelage, but this is a double-edged sword. While the film itself has a few fantastic visuals and very competent production values, it’s in service of a story that only occasionally hints at having something to say, delivered by one-note characters played with absolutely no passion, all so we can live and die by that patented Shyamalan “twist.” The proverbial apple plopped straight down from its tree, with everything positive and negative that implies.

Set in Ireland, the plot focuses on Mina (Dakota Fanning, giving some Happening-level line-readings), an American working in a pet shop (SYMBOLISM! SYMBOLISM! WE DO THE DANCE OF GENIUS WRITING!) who went abroad to escape her guilt over her mother’s death. And if you think that’s a spoiler, know that literally one of the first things she says to the most interesting character in the film — a parrot that chirps “Let us out” from its cage ever 15 minutes or so — is a blunt, “My mom died.” This is supposed to let the audience engage with her and give a shit if she survives the oncoming terrors?

Anyway, she’s given the bird by her boss and told to drive it to Belfast, a journey she’s told should take half a day or so (she lives in Galway, which is little more than a three-hour tour… a three-hour tour). During her trip, her oh so helpful GPS (which actually tells her to “continue for 104 kilometers, then you will arrive at your destination,” which is some of the bullshittiest bullshit to ever be shit by a bull) takes her off of paved roads and into a dark forest, just in time for the car itself to break down. Taking the bird with her to look for help, Mina spies an old woman flitting among the trees. Her name is Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), and upon seeing Mina, she beckons our ingenue to quickly run to join her at a bunker she calls “The Coop,” before the sun fully sets, or else she’ll die. Mina, possessing two functioning brain cells, does exactly that, and Madeline locks them inside, along with stock characters Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) and Ciara (Georgina Campbell).

In this relatively spartan space, Mina joins a trio that has been surviving because they “perform” for the entertainment of the titular “Watchers,” horrific beasts that none have ever seen and lived to tell about it. The fourth wall of their domicile is a two-way mirror, so every night, the group interacts as if they’re in a live reality show (the metaphor is bludgeoned home by the fact that one of the few accoutrements is an old television and a DVD of a house reality series). This appeasement renders the humans as pets to the watchers, who can’t expose themselves to sunlight, but are deadly at night if displeased. This is the fate that likely befell Ciara’s husband John (Alistair Brammer), seen attempting to escape in the film’s opening scene.

So let’s go down the checklist, shall we? Uninteresting protagonist? Check. Convoluted dialogue that no real human would ever say? Check. Obvious analogies meant to seem profound? Check. Obvious Hitchcock references with the use of birds? Check. An absolutely contrived set of circumstances to get us to our eventual scares? Check. Yup, this is a Shyamalan movie, all right. It doesn’t matter whose first name is in the credits.

The thing is, though, Ishana’s got something here. She truly does. It’s just mishandled in a way that suggests she takes her father’s influence a bit too closely to heart. For example, the production design of The Coop is really well done. It’s a living puzzle box, a sparingly appointed escape room where just about everything inside has a use, if only the characters are smart enough to figure it out (and sadly there is a large amount of dumb on display from our so-called heroes). Similarly, while the dialogue does us no favors, the sight of this quartet playing for an audience they can’t see while simultaneously being able to see only themselves is an expert bit of visual storytelling, complemented by some pretty spectacular cinematography around the mirror itself. This is the good stuff that Ishana has most definitely learned from her pop.

But there’s a lot of bad that comes with that good, and it’s easily foreseen. Like M. Night has done on several occasions, the twist ending seems to exist for its own sake, as even a basic level of narrative logic and literary comprehension tells you what’s going to happen long before it does, rendering the surprise nonexistent. There are rules to life in The Coop, but where do they come from? It’s clear quite early on that they can only originate from one source, no matter how much we try to obfuscate with the inclusion of a red herring in the form of “The Professor” (John Lynch). Like M. Night has done on several occasions, the scares are meant to come from some bastardized form of mythology and folklore, but the application is monumentally silly, and it really only serves to give us a few exposition dumps that explain the patently obvious, all while we laugh at the embarrassingly bad CGI design of our “monsters” (when we can see them, at least; the scenes they’re in are so full of darkness they might as well be singing “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”). Like M. Night has done on several occasions, the messaging of the plot is so transparent and overly serious that it’s impossible to even take at face value.

This is where a little time away from her dad would have done Ishana a world of good on a project like this. There’s nothing wrong with a twist, but you have to craft a cogent, compelling story with interesting characters to earn it. Otherwise it’s just a perfunctory exercise in using shock value to seem more clever than you are. There’s nothing wrong with incorporating folklore into a horror story. It’s done all the time to varying levels of success. But in order to make it work, it has to be believable and logical in a way that ties back to the story and characters organically. Here we just assert that mythical creatures are not only real, but a legitimate academic pursuit, an idea that’s laughable on its face.

Most importantly, though, if you’re going to try to use metaphor to make a larger point, it has to be one that makes sense and is relevant to the viewer. On this point, Ishana comes the closest to getting it right, but falls dispiritingly short at the moment of truth. Instead of opting for the easy (but still somehow confusing) analog to caged (or tanked) animals, go for the folly of manufactured voyeurism. The meat of this story isn’t in whether or not a bird should be free to fly, or whether or not certain species are too dangerous/codependent to be allowed on their own. All that nonsense should have been window dressing, if not dispensed with entirely.

Instead, go back to that fictitious reality show. Presented as a parodic combination of Big Brother and Love Island, the show is about young singles hooking up with each other, getting into fights, eliminating one another from the competition, and pretending to care about any of it. They’re all playing for the cameras, and all the so-called “personalities” are exaggerated for fake dramatic effect. Shows like this, whether you legitimately love them, enjoy them as guilty pleasures, or outright despise them, function because the production is intentionally manipulated by internal elements, be they the contestants on camera or the unseen producers in the control room. The scenarios are made up. The people are cast to fit certain demographics and paradigms. It’s a social experiment where some authoritative body is attempting to control every possible variable in order to generate one of only a handful of possible results. Something can always go awry, and everyone has a mathematical chance to win, which is why these shows and their contests are legal. They’re not rigged, but only in the strictest sense.

All of this is done according to a formula that production companies, networks, and studios believe will keep as many eyes as possible glued to the television set, as many fingers as possible frantically posting on social media, as many chats as possible at the water cooler the next day at work. If we admit that this is intellectually empty and massively orchestrated, it loses its power. If any of the people on this pastiche show — or anyone on an actual program — just says, “Yeah, I’m not actually going to date you in the real world. You’re a train wreck. Everything I do in here is for the money, and I don’t care about any of you people that I’ve known for a day above my own family,” then the hold is broken. The audience finds something else to occupy its time, and we all move on.

That’s where Ishana should have taken this. That would have demonstrated a cinematic voice distinct from her father’s. Have the story be about trying to make the Watchers bored of it all, so that they have no reason to want to keep Mina and the others in The Coop, and no reason to pursue them should they try to escape. It lets our protagonists do something above the bare minimum to keep themselves alive, it provides a solid plot motivation, and it actually feeds in to the background mythos that the supernatural element of the story tries to put forward as something legit scary (even though it’s very much not).

But most crucially, it would be a solid statement that substance matters more than style. That DVD could have easily stood for all of the downfalls of M. Night’s films over the years. And by beating the show rather than perpetuating it, Ishana would have shown that she’s ready to take what she’s learned in new directions, instead of just recycling a heavily-produced sideshow. Those sideshows can often be entertaining as hell for one reason or another, and sometimes they’re actually very well done, just like M. Night’s films. I’m not making a qualitative declaration on his career. What I’m saying is that in the age of “nepo babies,” Ishana Shyamalan had a golden opportunity to announce herself to the world as having her own vision despite a famous name, and in that respect, she blew it. And to be fair, she may yet still. She’s likely going to have a long career in this business, with many more shots to make something extraordinary. However, this was her first chance to make a case for herself as deserving of the access and resources that privilege and birthright have given her. Instead, she fell back on everything her dad’s done for the last 25 years, resting on laurels that most of us will never have, including her own characters.

Grade: C-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What are your thoughts on nepotism in the entertainment industry? Do you watch trashy reality shows? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content, and check out the entire BTRP Media Network at!

Originally published at on June 12, 2024.



William J Hammon

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