Another year, another hopeless ‘sci-fi-ish’ movie. Akiva Schaffer’s debut feature can be positioned somewhere between The Darkest Hour and Paul on a middling film scale. It’s nowhere near the former’s spaceship-crash standards (thank Xenu), and lacks only a little of the latter’s watered-down zaniness. But The Watch is very much of the same ilk: a muddled attempt at melding the story of every-day, witless people with that of ET or Independence Day, without having to fully commit to the science fiction genre.
Ben Stiller is Evan, a straight-laced supermarket manager desperate to be liked by everyone in his hometown of Glenview. Following the mysterious, gory death of a colleague, he founds a Neighbourhood Watch movement. Flyers are posted around town, and soon Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill come powering onto the screen as Bob and Franklin, two overly eager locals with a lust for gun-blazing good samaritanism. They are joined by Jamarcus (The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade), whose appearance prompts that inevitable question intended to clear up any doubts the American audience might have: “You’re British?” Cue eye-roll.
In all fairness to the screen writers, the first Watch meeting is a crisp, competent scene. Stiller’s humourlessness contrasts well with the others’ schoolboy optimism. Vaughn’s elation at discovering the secrets of a Russian doll is amusing in its apparent spontaneity. The opening of this film does have all the makings of a plausible farce. A bunch of mismatched average Joes on the march for justice may not be original, but at the very least it’s successful, tried-and-tested comedy fodder.
So why did they add the aliens? After the first half hour, The Watch deteriorates into a boy scout’s worst nightmare. Evan and co. are never prepared. They spend too much time chortling at each other’s grossly unfunny jokes, and find far more than squirrel droppings in the forest. The build-up to each set piece thunders louder than a rocket blast-off, but more often than not, the scenes fall flat.
Aside from the crass script and lukewarm plot, the core four’s group dynamic is completely off. Vaughn’s performance becomes increasingly panicked, as if he’s aware that everything’s collapsing around him. He and Hill carry the film throughout. They limp towards the end with just enough energy to keep things the right side of catastrophic, in time for a hitherto unused Ayoade to pipe up and make his purpose known. Meanwhile, Stiller’s performance is consistently poor. His character is all too familiar: a splicing of Greg Focker and Josh Kovacs, the uptight hotel manager in Tower Heist; the ‘responsible one’ whose job it is to chaperone the brasher, more careless characters. Gone are his days of raising laughs with the slightest pout or flick of the eyes. If anything, he looks extremely bored in front of the camera, punch-buttoning his lines just to set up another cast member’s moment. Even the snarling aliens have greater vocal variety.
The Watch is not the galactic melt-down it could have been. Akiva Schaffer has done his very best with some impressive special effects and a rather pitiful premise; but those Lonely Island shorts should have set him up for better things. This film aims to be a flaming beacon of off-beat sci-fi hilarity. It’s no more than a damp fire-cracker.
The Watch is out in cinemas 27th August 2012.
Director: Akiva Schaffer
Stars: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade
Runtime: 102 min