A Bizarrely Terrible Ben Stiller Sci-Fi Movie Is Streaming

By Nathan Kamal | Published

Ben Stiller

Ben Stiller has largely successfully bounced back and forth between family-friendly comedy and more anarchic, gross-out comedy. On one side of the equation, there is the Night at the Museum franchise, which has racked up over half a billion dollars via the premise “what if museums were fun?” On the other side, there are movies like There’s Something About Mary, DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story, and Tropic Thunder, all of which have mine humor from severe bodily injury and bizarre characters. One of his few misfires is one of the biggest in recent comedic history, the alien invasion movie The Watch. The 2012 Akiva Schaffer film was probably always destined to be dismissed as a minor effort by everyone involved, except for a ridiculous streak of coincidences that doomed any chance it had at all. It is currently streaming on Hulu.

Ben Stiller

The Watch stars Ben Stiller as Evan Trautwig, the milquetoast manager of a Costco (prominently featured in the movie in the first of a series of extremely prominent product placements). Much like an adult version of Max Fischer in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, Evan compensates for his lack of social skills by forming club after club (cue Ben Stiller in a goofy montage), until his coworker/de facto best friend (Joseph A. Nunez) is murdered in a mysterious, unsolved incident. In response, Ben Stiller forms a neighborhood watch with Vince Vaughn in his motor-mouthed sleazebag mode, Richard Ayoade essentially reprising his preternaturally clueless nerd role from The IT Crowd, and Jonah Hill as a violent, emotionally-troubled neighbor resentful of having failed his test to become a police officer. Then it turns out aliens are invading the town.

The fact that Jonah Hill’s character is supposed to be funny, lovably goofy,  and ultimately a good friend to Ben Stiller and the rest of the watch despite repeatedly wishing to have the power of law enforcement in order to indiscriminately commit unchecked violence is… not great. It has aged extremely poorly over the last decade of mass protests against police brutality. That his attention seems especially focused on mercilessly beating teenagers and that he at one point whips out a butterfly knife to threaten a part full of youths (while also repeatedly trying to have group sex with two high school girls) seems astonishingly tone-deaf even for 2012. In a career full of playing misanthropic, aggressively despicable characters and being inexplicably beloved for it, Jonah Hill really hit the jackpot with this one. 

The Watch went through a tortured development process, which is rarely a good sign for a cohesive movie. Producer (and frequent Ben Stiller collaborator) Shawn Levy developed the movie for three years as a teen-oriented Ghostbusters knock-off, then saw it rewritten a number of times. Comedy director Peter Segal was earmarked for the project, then replaced by Akiva Schaffer in his second feature directorial attempt. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were brought in to heavily rewrite the script, which seems to have reoriented it as a vehicle for as many genital jokes as possible. All in all, it seems The Watch was put through the Hollywood gauntlet before it even got a chance to go into production. 

The aggressive, spiteful violence of all of the watch members, even Ben Stiller’s comparatively sane leader, could theoretically have had some satirical comedic point, as in Seth Rogen and Jody Hill’s Observe and Report. However, the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a member of a neighborhood watch in Florida instantly turned the Ben Stiller movie radioactive. The marketing, which had heavily featured the protagonists of the film menacing teenagers and carousing, was abruptly shifted to emphasize the alien invasion storyline. The title was also changed from the original Neighborhood Watch to The Watch in one of the more useless attempts at damage control in Hollywood history. 

Another unfortunate, violent event interfered with the release of The Watch, as the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooting resulted in the death of 12 moviegoers and injury to 70 more. Theater attendance plummeted in the weeks before the Ben Stiller vehicle premiered. Finally, the 2012 Summer Olympics debuted simultaneously, dealing the last blow to the movie. The Watch ultimately made $68 million at the box office, barely matching its budget of the same amount. It has a terrible 16% on Rotten Tomatoes and generally has been mercifully forgotten. Hopefully, it remains that way.