Written by Tom Augustine.

The nepo baby business – that is, the tradition of established artists providing their children with opportunities in the industry that others can only dream of – is booming in Hollywood. Usually, this sort of opportunity is reserved mostly for the world of actors and musicians. Every so often, though, we get a nepo baby in the field of directing, and usually said children of great filmmakers do enough work to dispel the notion that nepo babies should continue, y’know, being a thing all on their own. Sam Levinson, Nick Cassavetes, Jason Reitman, Brandon Cronenberg – hardly auspicious company, with the important caveat of Sofia Coppola, the exception that proves the rule. Coppola stands apart from the crowd for the simple fact that her work cleaves its own artistically unique path, rather than live in the shadow of the work of their father. Far more often, though, these juniors are more than comfortable producing what could be considered minor asides of the oeuvre of their seniors. Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, is a great example of this – his films possess many of the mile markers of a Cronenberg picture with none of the associated nuance or prowess. 


Ishana Night Shyamalan is the daughter of M. Night Shyamalan, an intriguing deviation from the nepo baby mould. The younger Shyamalan is more than comfortable playing in the sandbox of her father’s making, but has proven to share many of the positive aspects of the older Shyamalan’s work all the same. Those who have seen her work on Shyamalan’s show Servant can likely speak to her promise as a filmmaker – not necessarily one cutting a drastically new path, but someone with an undeniable cinematic eye. The younger Shyamalan, though coming from an established name filmmaker, shirks some of the weight that other nepo babies assumedly shoulder, too, because of M. Night’s status as a Hollywood outsider since general consensus arrived at the idea that he made exclusively bad films. This is untrue, of course; Shyamalan’s early films like Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense made him a household name, while misunderstood gems like Signs and The Village get better year to year. In recent times, he’s seen something of a resurgence as well, capped off by last year’s excellent Knock at the Cabin, one of the best films of that year. Shyamalan famously funds all of his films himself, later selling them to distribution companies, and the fact that they routinely make bank is a reassuring reminder that for all the memes and lambasting, all the thinly veiled racism that comes with those who mock his last name, Shyamalan still has a loyal fanbase. 

Daughter of M. Night Shyamalan, Ishana, makes her feature debut with this moody folkloric horror, stranding four strangers in a mysterious, seemingly inescapable forest full of monsters. Shyamalan has inherited much of her father’s directorial prowess – unfortunately, she also inherits some of his films’ less appreciable aspects too.

Advance word on The Watchers has been vicious – a nepo baby nightmare by all accounts. Upon watching, one realises it isn’t as bad as all that. Indeed, much of the criticism of The Watchers has been levied at previous M. Night joints over the years – leaden performances, cringe-worthy dialogue, a clunky, unwieldy twist – that later reassessments proved were part of Shyamalan’s odd, ineffable genius. The schema of a Shyamalan film finds its basis in a certain wooden artificiality, almost like a Hitchcock picture – the alien remove of it all is part of the point. The same could be said of this new film from his daughter, which shares much of the older Shyamalan’s approach, though it still fails to rise to the level of his better work. Dakota Fanning stars as Mina, an artist lambasting in a kind of half-life since the death of her mother fifteen years prior. Working in Ireland at a pet store, she finds herself taking a lengthy car trip to deliver a rare parrot to a pet store in another region. Along the way, though, she becomes stranded in an immense woodland forest. It quickly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary forest, however, as she becomes lost and is drawn into a strange compound alongside others who have been lured into this mysterious place. There they stand before a two-way mirror every night, being watched by mysterious creatures on the outside who they’ve never seen. No one who ventures outside at night lives to see the morning.


The presence of M. Night can be felt even in that setup – the inescapable, dangerous void of Old, the isolated wooded area of Knock at the Cabin, the unseen monsters of Signs or The Village. It makes sense that the younger Shyamalan, testing the waters of feature filmmaking, would revert to the tried-and-true of M. Night’s work, though it does The Watchers no favours in comparison. Ishana’s strength becomes apparent soon into the film – she’s a cunning visualist, with a strong sense of where to place the camera. There’s a steady thrum of tension to the first act of the film, even as we can predict somewhat where the story is about to go. Unfortunately, the screenplay, adapted from A.M. Shine’s book of the same name, telegraphs too much of what is going on too early. The four key characters of the film – Fanning’s Mina, alongside Oliver Finnegan and Georgina Campbell as other young people caught in the cage, and Olwen Fouéré as an older woman who serves as something of a guide to the others of the ‘rules’ of the forest – do their best to overcome a script laden with exposition. As the only real star of the film, Fanning is oddly muted, an understandable approach considering the character’s backstory, but she ultimately fails to grip us in ways that she has done in so many roles in the past. Best is Fouéré, who keys into the film’s pseudo-gothic folklorism to deliver a cartoonishly mysterious performance that’s a hoot to watch. 


Suffice to say, the ultimate reveal of what the Watchers actually are lands with a thud, though there’s the kernel of something interesting in the way it speaks to Irish myth and legend. More subtle is an intriguing throughline of critique toward the modern advancement of artificial intelligence. Much is made of the threat of an identity being stolen, even replicated in The Watchers, providing a much needed subtext to the dark-fairytale shenanigans of the plot. There’s even a reference to AI’s failure to render fingers on hands properly, a savage grace note that roots Ishana Shyamalan’s artistry in a place of authenticity. Is it enough to save The Watchers, a goofy, messy work that reveals occasional glimmers of promise? Not really. The Watchers is a fun ride while in the cinema, but is also one that dissipates far quicker than any M. Night work is likely to do (I’m still thinking about Dave Bautista’s performance in Knock at the Cabin, for example). While we wait to see what the younger Shyamalan will do next, we at least have M. Night’s decidedly lurid and exciting next project, Trap, to look forward to just over the horizon. 

The Watchers is in cinemas now.


The Watchers

Movie title: The Watchers (I. Night Shyamalan, 2024)

Movie description: Daughter of M. Night Shyamalan, Ishana, makes her feature debut with this moody folkloric horror, stranding four strangers in a mysterious, seemingly inescapable forest full of monsters. Shyamalan has inherited much of her father’s directorial prowess - unfortunately, she also inherits some of his films’ less appreciable aspects too.

Date published: June 13, 2024

Country: United States, Ireland

Author: Ishana Shyamalan, A.M. Shine

Director(s): Ishana Shyamalan

Actor(s): Dakota Fanning, Georgina Campbell, Olwen Fouéré

Genre: Fantasy, Horror, Mystery

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