Overlong, uneventful and cheap as hell, Watchtower is a poor adaptation of Capcom's games and an even worse horror movie.
This live action adaptation of Capcom's zombie-mashing series may not be the worst video game movie of all time, but that's largely because it's so painfully tedious that it's hard to muster the negative emotion needed to rank it against the likes of Super Mario Bros and Double Dragon.
In many respects, it almost doesn't even need the source material since the setup is so generic. There's a zombie outbreak. A handful of people are trapped in the quarantine zone. That's pretty much it. With its shopping mall setting, the first Dead Rising riffed hard and shamelessly on Romero's Dawn of the Dead, but this movie doesn't even aim that high. Despite being produced by Legendary Digital, the online arm of the same production company responsible for The Dark Knight, Man of Steel and Godzilla, and despite featuring several recognisable actors, it both looks and feels like an amateur hour web series made by people whose only exposure to the horror genre comes from a few trailers for The Walking Dead and a diet of Syfy Original Movies.
The main character is Chase Carter, a cocky reporter for an internet news site. It's hinted that he has perhaps been reduced to this lowly state after working in TV news, but like every character beat in the movie it goes unexplained and unexplored. The film acknowledges the events of the three video games, setting itself in an America where zombie contagion is a known quantity, with the suppression drug Zombrex used to keep the infected from turning.
Chase is trying to get sensationalist footage from the frontline of a burgeoning outbreak, where emergency response agency FEZA (yes, really) is administering Zombrex. Except this time the drug doesn't work, and everything goes to hell. Again. What follows hits all the same beats and scenarios you'd expect from a zombie movie, but does so with such lethargy and slack pace that getting through the bloated 110 minute running time involves a lot of hard work for almost no reward.
Chase himself is a key part of the problem. Played by the blandly handsome Jesse Metcalfe (Dallas, Desperate Housewives) he's an empty void of a character. He's introduced as an arrogant sleazebag, but then he suddenly turns into a noble action hero and there's no real instigating incident for the change. It's not so much a character arc as a random gear shift. He just becomes a different person at some point, purely so we have someone to root for in the final act.
Joining him in his quarantined city hell is Crystal (Once Upon a Time's Meghan Ory), a clichéd tough girl character who is infected and needs to find working Zombrex as a matter of urgency, and Maggie, a bereaved mother who is discovered weeping over the corpse of her young zombie daughter.
Maggie is a particularly bizarre role. She's played by Oscar-nominee Virginia Madsen (Sideways) and feels like she's from a completely different movie. You cast an actor of her calibre in the role of a bereaved mother and even with a script this poor, you're going to get some sparks of genuine emotion. Those sparks sputter and die in the face of a storyline that has literally no idea what to do with the character.
Later in the film we get a couple of scenes from Dennis Haysbert (24, The Unit), typically effective as a brusque military man tasked with firebombing the city, survivors or not, but once again the script doesn't earn an actor of that calibre.
The role that everyone will remember - for all the wrong reasons - is comic actor Rob Riggle as Frank West, the lead character from the first Dead Rising game. The movie suggests that Frank has gone on to achieve a sleazy sort of celebrity thanks to his tell-all biography about the Willamette outbreak, and his scenes find him sitting in a news studio with an increasingly irritated anchorwoman, commenting on the unfolding crisis.
If Madsen's character feels like she's from a different movie, Riggle appears to be from a different universe. His scenes are completely disconnected from the rest of the movie, and consist of him making the same observation - that the people trapped in the city are f**ked - over and over again. There's a weird tonal shift here, from the broad Will Ferrell-esque comedy of Riggle to the surprisingly serious movie taking place on the ground. It really feels like they had him for an afternoon, shot some footage and then spliced it in at random. In a film that already runs a good half hour too long, it's an indulgence too far.
So, Watchtower is all over the place tonally and goes on far too long for a movie with such thin characters and slender plot. Can it at least succeed as a zombie movie or an adaptation of the game? That's a gigantic nope on both counts.
Beyond the Zombrex and Frank West character, there are other surface nods to the games, which may amuse easily impressed fans. There's a lot of talk early on about the need to craft DIY weapons, and some - such as the Sledge Saw combo - will be familiar to players. There's a gang of Mad Max style biker bandits who, at a push, fulfil the role of the Psycho bosses from the games. At one point Chase plonks a traffic cone on the head of a zombie, and there's a Servbot mask in the background of one scene.
What the movie misses is the actual appeal of the games. What drew players to the series wasn't those incidental features and details, but the environment in which they existed. Dead Rising is about crowds yet this is perhaps the quietest, least populated zombie apocalypse ever. If you want to see what a Dead Rising movie should look like, turn to the gleefully disgusting lawnmower finale of Peter Jackson's Braindead. In contrast, Watchtower can barely muster zombies in double figures for most scenes.
It's such a strangely empty movie. The whole core of the gameplay is how you get from A to B while wading through hordes of zombies, finding new ways to carve them up as you go, yet in the film the hero characters are able to wander pretty much at will around the entire city, only occasionally being bothered by small groups of the undead. Clearly this is a very cheap movie, but this is surely one area where a little can go a long way. A casting call for fans willing to cosplay as zombies for a day would surely have attracted enough extras to create a few scenes that at least look like there's an actual zombie plague, rather than the aftermath of the world's most depressing Halloween fancy dress party.
Compounding the uneventful nature of the movie is the simple fact that it's not very good horror. There's blood - mostly in obvious CG splashes and the occasional mouthful burped out in actor's faces - but no real gore. There's a slightly juicy bisection, and a pretty good decapitation, but that's it. For a movie with so much inventive hardware being wielded, too little of it ever gets put to use for a memorable kill. Most action scenes simply have the cast pushing zombies over. For anyone who remembers the gory glory days of the zombie movie, when pretty much the whole point was how many horrible practical special effects gags Tom Savini could come up with, this fails even as a basic entry in its own genre.
It seems silly to be disappointed when yet another movie based on a video game turns out to be terrible. We should be used to this, after all. Yet with its gonzo splatter and simple narrative, Dead Rising seemed like an adaptation that should have been really hard to mess up. They managed it.