Even before the first trailer for The Watch debuted, it was clear the sci-fi comedy – about a group of suburbanites that fend off an alien invasion – would need to overcome a few unexpected hurdles. Despite a rich cast of American comedy favorites including Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill, the film (from former SNL writer-turned-director, Akiva Schaffer) no doubt bears plenty of similarities to 2011′s surprise British indie hit from Joe Cornish, Attack the Block, which featured a group of rowdy South London gang kids who are forced to tussle with an alien threat to their community.
Then came the tragic shooting of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, which prompted an alteration to the film’s title (at the time, Neighborhood Watch) as well as numerous aspects of the film’s marketing. However, despite the pre-release obstacles, in principle The Watch has a lot going for it – a solid premise, an all-star comedy cast, as well as script-work contributions from funny man favorites Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.
So does the final film make use of these elements – leaving similarities to other films and a problematic marketing campaign as an afterthought?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. While there are definitely some entertaining moments in The Watch, the film fails to bring anything new to the table or successfully riff on alien invasion tropes with smart satire. R-rated comedies always face a difficult balance – finding a through line between over-the-top humor as well as grounded narrative and characters that can appeal to audience members old enough for admission. Instead, the movie is a lazy mishmash of middle-of-the-road comedy bits coupled with a number of low road choices (such as the aliens’ weakness) that will have more discerning audience members rolling their eyes.
As mentioned, The Watch storyline parallels a number of alien invasion comedy/horror plots – but is unable to iterate fresh (or many funny) ideas. The core narrative follows Evan (Ben Stiller), who is the go-to guy for organizing community action in his neighborhood. After a grisly murder, Evan decides to form a neighborhood watch and fellow residents Bob (Vince Vaughn), Franklin (Jonah Hill), and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade) answer the call to serve. The foursome begin patrolling the community (to the annoyance of the actual police department) in order to prevent further criminal activity – only to discover that their neighborhood is actually ground zero for an impending alien invasion.
The star power is mostly wasted on flat (not to mention familiar) characters that rely heavily on toilet humor without successfully satirizing mainstream extraterrestrial story tropes. Stiller is doing his usual “nice guy called to action” routine (aka Josh Kovaks in Tower Heist, Larry Daley in Night at the Museum), but despite a couple of fun establishing set pieces (introducing audiences to Evan’s job and other “neighborhood” groups he founded), there’s very little to the leading man outside of his scene-t0-scene reactions. The filmmakers attempt to ground Evan with an “emotional” story arc – centered around a secret he’s been keeping from his wife, Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) – but the plotline is entirely tacked-on and quickly dismissed by the end of the film. As a result, audiences aren’t likely to invest in the Evan character – since he’s over-powered by Stiller’s trademark comedy shtick.
Most of the side players fall short because of the same problem, a “style” over substance approach that never gets off the ground – especially since the sci-fi premise itself isn’t compelling enough to carry the movie without interesting characters. Vaughn’s “family guy,” Bob, is all over the place – mostly a cartoony foil to Evan who also manages a few of the movie’s more (comparatively) ”heartfelt” moments – where as Hill’s Franklin is easily one of the Oscar-nominated actor’s least compelling contributions to date. Only Jamarcus, played by Ayoade (The IT Crowd), is genuinely likable. It’s a major credit to the actor’s performance – considering Jamarcus is primarily concerned with getting laid (an example of how little interest the filmmakers had in writing anything but flat comedy characters).
Of course, some moviegoers aren’t going to be concerned about the quality of the characters if the alien invasion element is interesting enough, but as noted, even the core premise is an overly-familiar and underwhelming mishmash of bland genre riffs. There isn’t a compelling, or even competent, extraterrestrial mythology or narrative arc to keep sci-fi lovers engaged – and much like the main cast, the alien characters are reduced to little more than one-note participants. Even the creature designs will look familiar – as if The Watch pre-production team pieced together an invading threat entirely out of Hollywood blockbuster leftovers.
As The Watch plot unfolds, there’s never really a moment where all of these assembled parts click into place. It’s as if everything and everyone on screen is competing to be the funniest aspect of the film – throwing jokes, one-liners, and gross-out gags at the wall without restraint in order to see what sticks. In the end, very few of the jabs really pay off and everything else is reduced to disconnected (and unfunny) noise. Nearly every element of the movie, the comedy, the science-fiction, and the characters have been done better in countless other films – including a few sci-fi/alien-invasion/comedy mashups.
It’s hard to recommend The Watch to anyone but moviegoers looking for a sparse comedy escape. The film supplies a few guilty chuckles once in a while, but an over-dependence on lowbrow set-pieces paired with thin characters and story will likely leave many audiences members underwhelmed or outright disappointed by the film’s lack of effort. The Watch is a lazy production at nearly every level – ill-equipped to conquer the summer box office. Expect these aliens (and comedians) to have better luck in a couple years – when they invade basic cable.
If you’re still on the fence about The Watch, check out the trailer below:
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out The Watch episode of the SR Underground podcast.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below.
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future reviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.
The Watch is Rated R for some strong sexual content including references, pervasive language and violent images. Now playing in theaters.