Deathwatch is a 2002 war horror (or “warror” if you’re awesome and smart) movie written and directed by Michael Bassett. It has a young Jamie Bell, a Golum-era Andy Serkis and a whole lotta rats. Spoiler alert, the rats are definitely dead today. Sorry to break that to you, rat lovers. Also spoiler alert, I’m about to dive full force into this bastard so if you haven’t seen it yet and are wondering what’s up I’d highly encourage you check out the trailer first. IF that seems cool, then you’re going to need to rent the DVD (standard definition) through your Netflix account or buy it online and get it shipped to you because this is not an easy one to find. After all that, a spoiler-heavy review awaits you.
Reviewed by: Jake
It’s 1917, and WWI is in full swing. We join a group of British soldiers in the midst of the fray and attempting to take a German trench to gain some ground. If you aren’t familiar with how that was done, it was… messy. Gas, bombs, tunneling, and just straight up popping up out of the relative safety of your own trench and running full-bore into a storm of bullets. That’s what our group of soldiers do, and it does not go well. In fact, they all get into a pretty dire situation prior to the movie’s title card even appearing. Not sure how any would have survived. But next thing you know, we rejoin our friends as they trudge through a misty forest. We aren’t really sure how long after the events of the cold open this is, and neither are they for some reason.
The group comes upon another German-held trench and takes it over, killing two of the three occupying soldiers they find and taking the other prisoner. Thing is, the Germans didn't’ seem too concerned about the English. They were much more focused on another threat coming from the other direction. No one knows who (or what?) it was. After taking the trench, the Brits get to work trying to solidify their position, thinking they have outflanked the opposition and are in a place where they can start to chisel away at the front lines. Almost immediately, however, things seem amiss. They have trouble getting ahold of anyone to confirm and strategize, there are unnerving signs of German infighting in the bodies strewn everywhere, compasses don’t work, AND THE WALLS FUCKING BLEED WHEN YOU SET OFF AMMUNITION. No big, though.
No big until one by one, the Brits start losing their sanity and/or falling prey to supernatural forces… Bodies wrapped in barbed wire appear out of nowhere like grim tributes to the destruction and death all around them, spiriting one of the soldiers away to a similar fate. The men start hearing things, questioning each other's motives, and losing faith in the decision to remain in the trench and hold their position. One soldier in particular, Pvt. Thomas Quinn (Andy Serkis) is a special kind of insane and single handedly brings about a fair amount of paranoia on his very own. He ends up killing several of his comrades and full on crucifying the German prisoner out in No Man’s Land before the previously timid teenage enlistee, Pvt.
Charlie Shakespeare (Jamie Bell) shoots him to put an end to the insanity. Shortly thereafter the trench itself rips asunder and exposes the gaping maw of hell, sucking Shakespeare down into it along with the corpses of his now completely dead unit and untold many Germans. He awakens in a dark cavern, seeing his unit alive again and realizing that he might be in some sort of limbo. He attempts to run and emerges in the same trench, running into the German prisoner, who he had saved from Quinn. The German now speaks English and tells him he is free to ascend the stairs and leave, presumably to heaven. The movie ends with another unit coming upon the German soldier, who has a look that tells you this is an ever -repeating process. Fin.
What the Movie Does Right
The set design in this movie is very, very good. WWI was a disgustingly brutal conflict and trench warfare is an intense way to go about things. Deathwatch excels in showing the disgusting, disease-riddled muck of the trenches, which soldiers spent the vast majority of their time just sitting in and picking up trenchfoot and a cornucopia of diseases. And those were probably the best of times because at least they weren’t being gassed or running headlong into artillery with no real hope of surviving. There is a real feeling of hopelessness in the movie, and the muddy, claustrophobic world built by the trenches really helps bring that through.
I will also add that for the most part the acting in this movie was good. There is a 16-year-old Jamie Bell and other actors you have more than likely seen before. I’m not going to list them here because this is one of those movies where you may recognize a character, but you will not know their name. Think The Thing. It’s like that. And then there’s something that I’m actually going to give its own section because it’s my review and fuck it.
What the Movie Does That Will Make or Break It For You
This mother fucker:
Andy Serkis is in this movie. I blew right by that in the synopsis, but let’s talk about it a bit. This is a man that is at his best playing an insane caricature of a humanoid. He basically delivers 75% of Smeagol’s character here as Quinn and it’s a thing to behold. There was a ton of disagreement on our podcast about the effect this had on the viewing experience, so that’s why we are in our own section. Personally, I found Serkis’ performance to be completely over-the-top in an entertaining way, but am willing to admit it was extremely at odds with the overall tone of the film to a point where it really broke immersion. This is a man who marauds around with a fucking sidearm and a scimitar, scalping dead bodies for the hell of it and wearing what looks like a wolf pelt. This is a man who finds a Charlie Kelly rat stick and uses it to torture a German prisoner and kill one of his own. This is a man who is unliiiiimited. The sheer absurdity of Quinn will do one of two things:
You will find it hilarious and bask in the entertainment value in the sense that it’s pure, weird spectacle, but you probably not understand why he’s there or who wrote this character to be like this.
You will hate it and think it was the worst thing that’s ever happened (Mark was in this camp).
What the Movie Does Wrong
I already covered Serkis so I’m not double-jeopardizing or belaboring that point any further. Just know it could very easily go here depending on who you are. Something this movie definitely does wrong is the CG. Let’s just get that out of the way right now. The CG in this film, whenever it’s utilized (which is for most of the actual movie’s effects) is complete ass. Complete. Ass.
Another big, big problem here is the predictability of the film. There wasn’t much of an attempt to conceal anything related to the fact that these soldiers had been dead the whole time ,which was really odd considering the movie seemed like it was trying to be mostly psychological. Mix that with the Serkis character and I think we’re able to just go ahead and call the writing of the film the culprit. I just don’t know if anyone ever figured out what they wanted this to be. It’s basically the old “War is Hell” adage, but in literal fashion. It feels like it is going to develop into something grander in some way, but it never really does, which is pretty disappointing. For a film that looked as good as it did in so many ways and was set in a relatively underused place, there felt like missed opportunities galore. Ultimately, it just leaves a taste in your mouth that you probably don’t want because you can feel the half-assedness of what it delivered in its story.
Story: 6 - This probably seems a little too high based on what you just read with my last qualm, but from a high level, conceptual standpoint, a movie about soldiers in WWI who enter their end-of-days scenario in horror fashion is straight up fire. It was how we got from place to place where this falls flat on its ass. I wouldn’t blame someone for giving a much lower score here, but I typically leave this more conceptual and pot the details of the story into my world building and immersion, sooo...
World-Building / Immersion: 5 - Tale of two ratings here. As I said before, the main area where this movie excels is in painting a picture of the world that is the trenches. It’s depressing and disgusting, and you can feel it. Good work on that front. From an immersion standpoint, Serkis will pull you out and the lackluster and predictable nature of the events that take place make it a hard one to get into.
Scare-Factor: 4 - this is almost all for the real-world eeriness of the trenches and what it must have been like to be in that situation. It would have been a terrifying experience. From the supernatural side, there isn’t a ton added aside from a couple of scenes where barbed wire is used to supernatural effect, and it doesn’t add a lot.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 7 - This was a contentious one during the crew discussion. I fully acknowledge the CG was gobshite in this movie, but luckily it wasn’t used a lot. The sound was mostly serviceable but there are instances where incorrect gun loading noises were used and the score felt a bit out of place at times as it would have fit a generic war drama better. BUT, the sets, props and costuming in this movie were all great, so I’m going on tilt a bit here.
Overall: 5.5 - Don’t think I can recommend this to too many people. Now, that’s not a problem because it’s a hard movie to find which is probably somewhat indicative of its general lack of appeal. I think it’s an interesting movie but it doesn’t do enough that needs to be seen for it to be on the list of horror recommends. If you want to see Serkis be an insane person, there’s a morsel here for you, though.