Look At All The Undead Russians
Night Watch / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()
p>I didn’t really expect there to be a line for Night Watch, playing down at the Nuart theater on Santa Monica. I’d never actually been to the Nuart before, so I didn’t know what to expect in general, but I certainly didn’t expect there to be a small group of people waiting to buy tickets to a sci-fi flick about good versus evil, vampires, and other supernatural beings in a sunny Friday afternoon in L.A. I mean, I knew why I was there, but shouldn’t these people have jobs? I stood in front of a hipsterish guy with a leather shoulder bag and behind a rat-faced dude with cargo pants and a ratty beard, all of us geekily waiting on the sidewalk instead of doing whatever else we could have been doing, just to see a blood-soaked, effects-riddled, Russian-with-subtitles fantasy.
And man, did we make the right choice.
Based on the novel by Sergei Lukyanenko, Night Watch is already a hit in its native Russia, as is its sequel, Day Watch, which set a national opening day box office record; the trilogy’s final installment, Dusk Watch, is currently in production. Director Timur Bekmambetov reaches for epic levels here and succeeds in a big way, his grasp extending into territory mapped by Tolkien’s Silmarillion to capture a sprawling tale of the unending and often evenly matched battle between good and evil. The story’s mythology goes that Others walk among us, gifted humans that can see the future, shapeshift, work magic, etc. There are Light Others and Dark Others, and their forces met more than a thousand years ago to do battle, with Gesser (Vladimir Menshov) leading the Light and Zevulon (Viktor Verzhbitsky) leading the Dark. After realizing that the fighting would lead to complete annihilation, Gesser offered what would be known as the Truce: No more fighting, and no more meddling with normal humans. The Light forces became known as Night Watch, and were charged with keeping an eye on the Dark ones, while meanwhile the Dark ones became known as Day Watch and kept a similar guard over their enemies. This supposedly kept the balance till now, but from the start Bekmambetov presents a far more complex worldview than the black hats versus white hats routine. The mere fact that the good guys are forced to watch the night while the evil armies must face the day admits the complicated truth that people are rarely if ever completely good or completely evil: There’s always compromise involved. As the story goes, no one can be forced to become Light or Dark, but must choose it for himself.
Into this mix comes Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), who discovers that he’s an Other when he witnesses some of the Night Watch forces stop a witch from performing black magic. He goes to work for Night Watch, using his newfound ability to see visions of the future to help hunt vampires, demons, and the general forces of darkness. The scene in which the witch is captured is the first of many stunning uses of effects in the film, and it’s here again that Bekmambetov distances himself from other trilogy names like George Lucas and Peter Jackson. Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, and especially Episodes I-III of Lucas’ Star Wars are visual orgies of computer-generated habitats, characters and explosions, wherein the scripts service the effects wizards. But in Night Watch, form follows function, and the effects become marvelous storytelling tools that serve to draw the viewer into the film’s world and mythology instead of constantly reminding us that we’re watching ILM’s latest masterpiece. In this regard, Night Watch bears a resemblance to The Matrix (let’s just pretend the sequels don’t exist, OK?). Critics and fanboys alike hailed the 1999 film for its revolutionary effects and camera work, despite the fact that the Wachowski brothers were just using photographic techniques designed by Eadweard Muybridge in the late 1800s to study a horse’s gait. The effects in Night Watch don’t go anywhere we haven’t seen before, but it’s the way the effects themselves are used that’s so gloriously, refreshingly different from mainstream Hollywood genre fare.
It’s the tiny nuances that set Night Watch apart from other modern fantasy trilogies: The good guys now keep track of their enemies through paperwork, and issue licenses when the bad guys want to do something like create a new vampire. Anton is actually friends with a vampire, who lives in the apartment across from his. But they don’t go bursting into each other’s rooms or trying to kill each other because it would break the Truce; in a realistic touch, good and evil often take a backseat to bureaucracy.
In what must be an unwritten rule when it comes to films about prophecies, this one revolves around a young boy, an Other, who will destroy the balance by choosing either the Light or the Dark and leading that side to victory. Gesser tells Anton that most people have predicted that the boy will choose darkness, since “it’s easier for a man to destroy the Lightness inside him than defeat all the Darkness around him.” Anton and the others know this, but keep the faith regardless. It’s not that they think they can win; in fact, they know there’s a good chance they’ll lose. But that’s not why they fight. They do what they can to protect the peace and support the cause of good because it’s in their natures. So Anton finds himself trying to protect the boy from the vampires out to kill him, or worse, persuade him to choose Dark over Light.
I’ll admit I was skeptical at how a fantasy film, especially one as complex as Night Watch revealed itself to be in the first few minutes, would translate across the inherent geographic and language barriers. Would the action or story be hindered by the subtitles? On the contrary, the subtitled text often leaps across the screen, or passes behind a character’s arm, or dissolves away like blood in water, becoming a living part of the film. It’s a brilliant choice that turns the act of reading the movie into part of its atmosphere, and keeps the energy level higher than standard foreign fare.
I usually don’t go for movies like this, and I’m usually vindicated in my choices. But Night Watch was well worth it: Smart, engaging, frenetically paced, culturally aware, well-written, and just fun to watch. Geek movie or not, I’ll probably line up to see the sequel.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.