"Night Watch" ("Nochnoi Dozor"), a new Russian film, blends elements of horror, thriller and fantasy creating a truly different story. The first entry of a proposed trilogy, "Night Watch" is a visually interesting, imperfect film. As the story progresses, through two more films, I anticipate many more layers of story, character and action will be revealed based on the promise of this first entry.
In 1992, Anton (Konstantin Kabensky) visits a local `witch'. He wants the woman to help him win his estranged pregnant wife back; she recently left him and he is having trouble coping with the loss. The `witch' tells Anton that she can help him, but his wife's illegitimate child will be lost. He consents. Before the meeting ends, Anton will learn he is an "Other", one of a group of creatures who help keep the balance between good and evil. Twelve years later, Anton has joined the Night Watch, the group of Others who oversee the night, and all things light and good. This group spar with Day Watch, the Others who protect all things bad or dark. Oh, and Anton is now a vampire.
I could go on and on, describing every aspect of this tale, such as the shape shifters, a cursed woman who could unknowingly cause the Apocalypse, vampires hunting a twelve year old boy, and more. But if I did so, a lot of the surprise, magic and interest in the tale would be lost. A large part of our ability to suspend disbelief rides on our ability to be surprised. If you aren't surprised, you are probably anticipating something and comparing it to real life. It is better for you to be surprised.
On paper, it sounds like a mess, but strangely, oddly, inconceivably, it works. While far from a perfect film, the alternate universe created here is well-defined and makes sense based on the parameters established by the writer and director Timur Bekmambetov. Clearly, "Watch" isn't going to depict a real time and place. But the director establishes this time and place well. There are moments which don't make sense, detracting from the overall quality of the project, but these are few and far between.
Given the circumstances, all of the characters are suitably dour and depressed. Locked in an epic battle, I imagine they have little time for fun or jokes. Anton is a particularly interesting character. As a vampire, he would naturally need blood in order to survive. But as he is a member of the Night Watch, he seems determined to drink pig blood, staying away from humans, something the vampires of Day Watch have no trouble with. As he struggles with this seemingly self-enforced character trait, he serves as a sort of foot soldier for his group, helping them find people, dealing with problems. His current assignment is to help them find a 12 year old boy who is receiving the calling, from the Day Watch to come and join them. Of course, the little boy has no idea what that means, but the Night Watch have to stop him before he makes it.
Because the film was shot in Russia, the settings are unique and foreign, adding to the `alternate reality' view they present. Because the typical Russian lives in conditions a couple of grades below what most of us are used to, this adds to the feel of the film, giving the characters more desperation, less comfort. They live in small, dark, cluttered apartments. If the power goes out, they simply adapt because they are used to it. It doesn't even occur to them that the power outage might be a sign of something more serious. They drive old cars and trucks. There clothes are dark and slightly worn out. To us, everything people living in Moscow deal with on a daily basis seems like a prop or set decoration in a film about the Apocalypse.
Director Bekmambetov has occasional flashes of brilliance. In one scene, Anton finds himself battling two vampires from the Day Watch for the 12 year old boy. These Day Watch vampires can only be seen consistently in mirrors. But when the one large mirror in the old warehouse is broken, Anton can no longer see the male who is attacking him. He grabs a large shard of mirror and holds it close to his face, swirling around, looking for his attacker. This scene is quite interesting, almost brilliant in execution. One problem with the film is some of the guidelines established are inconsistent. Later, the female vampire is seen without the aid of mirrors.
Less successful are scenes of the leader of the Day Watch using a video game for training purposes. Images of the video game are cut into scenes of the leader practicing sword moves. The figures in the video game look remarkably similar to this character and it almost seems like a plug for a video game tie in. Unfortunately, the game is featured a few times, detracting from the film.
As this is a Russian film, there are subtitles. For the American release, Fox Searchlight has added an English language introduction and coda, to help orient the viewers. Also, many of the subtitles seem to be integrated into the image. For instance, when the 12 year old boy hears the calling, the subtitles mysteriously drift away, much like the woman's voice he hears. It's a nice touch.
This is a film that will require you to suspend disbelief. If you are willing to do that, you should enjoy the ride. If you are expecting to watch a realistic drama featuring recognizable American actors, you will be disappointed.