A sincere question for my readers: is it worse for a movie to be derivative or lifeless? The Watch, the second feature by The Lonely Island’s Akiva Schaeffer, borrows liberally from science fiction cinema classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (take your pick between the ’56 and ’78 versions) as well as contemporary greats like last year’s excellent Attack the Block, but the film’s worst transgression isn’t its unapologetic mimicry. Calling on decades-old genre traditions is one thing; turning out an embarrassingly brainless, thoroughly bland, and criminally unfunny attempt at sci-fi comedy is another entirely. The Watch shows as little interest in its aliens as its punchlines.
Not to mention its characters. Like the best science fiction stories, The Watch rests human drama against its genre elements, but unlike the best science fiction stories, it has no clue how to combine its two halves. On one side stands the four men who represent their sleepy Ohio suburb’s neighborhood watch. On the other lurks a covert extraterrestrial invasion force intent on subjugating the human race from within (literally– they wear the skin of the people they kill to walk among us). Naturally, the men are unprepared to deal with interstellar man-eaters; Evan (Ben Stiller) only establishes the watch to catch the killer of one of his employees, while the others– Bob (Vince Vaughn), Franklin (Jonah Hill), and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade)– all join to escape the boredom of their daily lives. Of course, the killer Evan seeks turns out to be none other than an alien, and the quartet quickly discover that they’ve bitten off more than they can reasonably chew.
There’s nothing wrong with that premise, at least not on the page. The problems that plague The Watch are steeped entirely in approach. The Watch rests, it’s lazy; put simply, it’s the very definition of “standard”. If the concept sounds great, it’s employed poorly, used to prop up ninety minutes of running time rather than serve as a fully functioning narrative. In between bits and pieces of alien movement, we’re treated to a critical mass of filler in the form of the personal baggage of each character (Evan avoids his wife for reasons of male pride, Bob butts heads with his teenage daughter, Franklin resents being rejected by the police academy, and Jamarcus is, well, an odd duck). In fact, The Watch deals a lot more with the individual crises of is characters than with the threat of alien attack, which is completely fine until we reach the third act and the film has to marry the grounded to the out-of-this-world.
The results are disharmonious. The Watch rushes across the finish line gasping for breath after a series of info dumps, arc resolutions, weak reveals, and a really boilerplate action climax. The effect is such that the aliens feel like an afterthought, which is odd considering that they drive the whole plot forward. One might be left wondering why Schaeffer (along with screenwriters Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen) bothered dealing with aliens in the first place. Oh, The Watch flirts with one or two ideas tied to the interloping aliens, but they’re severely neglected and treated with the most cursory of touches. The film could be about illegal immigration at a time when America’s policies on citizenship and deportation are as pressing as ever. It could be about prejudice in modern society. In the end, it doesn’t matter what The Watch is about, because the film doesn’t appear to really care.
Frankly, The Watch just could have been funny and that alone may have saved it from the doom of the middle-road. Somehow, even that pursuit gets botched. The film is at its funniest in little fits and spurts, quiet moments in between the stagier gags; the seeming improv-riffing each of the leads do with one another when nothing more important is going on on screen for the most part works, even if the laughs are somewhat fleeting. When The Watch goes big, it falls flat on its face. A lengthy, Hangover-inspired photo montage in which the guys celebrate their first (apparent) victory over an alien by doing increasingly lewd things with its corpse should be hilarious– if derivation isn’t a problem for plot, then why should it stymie comedy? Unfortunately, the same joke doesn’t always work twice, especially when the structure doesn’t change except to accommodate differing circumstances.
Star power almost saves the movie from itself. The combination of Stiller, Vaughn, Hill, and Ayoade works, but they’re all undermined by the material and, admittedly, by their own images. If you’re not yet sick of Vaughn’s boorish, heart-of-gold motormouth act or Stiller’s awkward anal retention, then The Watch should be right in your wheelhouse. (As though further ammunition is needed to highlight the film’s run-of-the-mill character.) There’s clear chemistry amongst the group, but it services paper thin material; it’s hard not to wish for these actors to find their way onto the set of a better movie.
Ultimately, it’s best to think of The Watch as science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction– non-challenging, unambiguous, light on ray guns and fanged monsters from outer space. The entire picture breezes past thematic concerns, turns a blind eye to social subtext, and walks straight into the frat house with raunchy gusto. Along the way, though, The Watch forgets to be funny, and so the picture turns out to be a comedy for people who aren’t fond of laughing, either. It’s hard to determine where the movie fits, being neither amusing nor thoughtful, but it’s safe to say that it represents a lesser entry in Pod People cinema.