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Review: Who watches ‘The Watchers’? Those who don’t expect that much from a mystery box of a movie

Two women stand in a room looking in a mirror.
Dakota Fanning, left, and Olwen Fouéré in “The Watchers.”
(Warner Bros. Pictures)
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Let us consider the dilemma of the Interesting Shot, announcing itself to the viewer as a considered expression of artistic merit, from a conscientious director thinking outside the common realm of composition and wielding perfect design that betrays nothing unwarranted.

With the Interesting Shot, who needs life? Or storytelling? Case in point: “The Watchers,” the first feature of Ishana Night Shyamalan (you’ve seen her dad’s movies), about a quartet of people trapped in the woods like caged animals by mysterious entities. Regrettably, the movie itself feels trapped by its airless gallery of carefully crafted images, familiar to the high-toned end of the horror genre: elegantly mood-thick surroundings, deliberately half-seen creatures, actors positioned as if in a still life.

Not that talent doesn’t go into the Interesting Shot. But in prioritizing her collaboration with cinematographer Eli Arenson over elements such as dialogue, acting, editing and interior logic, she drains her waking nightmare of a set-up (based on the 2021 book by author A.M. Shine) of anything that might connect us on a human level. All that’s left is the stuff that signals a cautiously planned experience. Even her opening, of a guy frantically trying — and failing — to escape menacing woods comes with some explanatory narration (“There’s a forest in Ireland not on any map”) that feels like our sense of discovery has been childproofed.

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Dakota Fanning is that narrator, who we learn is Mina, first seen as a bored-looking, chain-vaping worker in a Galway pet shop, tasked by her boss with driving a golden parrot to Belfast. The journey takes her through those eerie woods, where the car suddenly conks out. Lost and carrying the bird — who briefly gets its own POV Interesting Shot — she stumbles upon a severe-looking, white-haired woman named Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), who demands Mina follow her through the open doorway of a boxy one-room structure if she wants to live.

A woman is terrified in the woods.
Mina (Dakota Fanning) walks uneasily through eerie woods in “The Watchers.”
(Jonathan Hession)

Inside what Madeline calls the Coop — one side of which is a window that becomes a trick mirror at night — Mina finds another young woman, easygoing Ciara (Georgina Campbell). There’s also a wide-eyed teenager named Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) and many rules. The most vital is that after sundown, they must all face the mirror so an audience of deadly forest beings called Watchers can observe their nightly imprisonment. In the daytime, they can be outside, but within specified boundaries marked by freaky stick figures and signs scrawled with “Point of No Return.”

Fanning reliably imbues Mina, who bears guilt from a childhood trauma, with a risk-taking independence; she quickly bristles at the notion that escape is impossible. But her rebellious attitude puts her at odds with the humorless, imperious Madeline, a character so laughably charged with meaning beyond what we’re shown, she might as well have “Just You Wait” tattooed on her forehead. Conversely, Ciara and Daniel are about as forgettable as characters can be. The only thing the foursome has to watch on their vintage TV is — wink, wink — a DVD of a “Big Brother”-style program. The irony, however, is that the level of character storytelling on any given episode of a dumb reality show is better than “The Watchers.”

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After a couple of hairy close calls with their predatory captors and some minimal detective work, the gang eventually learns information about their situation that suggests a way out, and an answer to the why of their lab-specimen experience. But it’s way too late: By the point “The Watchers” has pivoted to its pull-the-rug endgame (clearly a family thing with the Shyamalans), the level of exposition and explanation — rules, backstory, folklore, history, video diaries, an old cassette tape — has thoroughly overwhelmed any authentic drama or peril. Between the clunky narrative and the Interesting Shots, you feel defeated by both show and tell.

'The Watchers'

Rating: PG-13, for violence, terror and some thematic elements

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: In wide release Friday, June 7

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