Russia is pretty quiet when it comes to film. What have they crazy Ruskies been up to? Did the industry die with Tarkovsky or what? Well folks, guess what? The market for Communist Propaganda films must have finally gave way to epic horror/fantasy trilogies, because out of nowhere comes Night Watch, an epic horror/fantasy film based on the book of the same name, and the first installment of an epic horror/fantasy trilogy. I hope you like epic horror/fantasy films, epic horror/fantasy trilogies, and obnoxiously redundant opening paragraphs, because if you don’t, you may just stop reading this epic horror/fantasy review.
In the world of Night Watch, some people are born with a unique supernatural power. There comes a time in most of these special people’s lives when they become aware of their power, start riding the short bus to school, and choose to purse the path of Light or the path of Dark. I hope they don’t release this puppy in May. Anyway, the film opens with a prologue that sets up the main story. Once upon a time was an ancient war between the armies of Light and Dark. The Lighties and Darkies decided to truce it up; fast forward to present day. There is an underground group of Light Soldiers who police the soldiers of dark, making sure they don’t break the truce via illegal hexing or killing. Our protagonist, Anton, visits a woman with dark power to get his girlfriend back, who left him for a guy that knocked her up. The woman claims the only way to get her back is to perform an abortion, long distance hex style, which is a violation of the truce. Anton agrees, but before the woman can complete the ritual, the Light Police bust out and regulate. During the shakedown, Anton discovers he has psychic powers.
Cut to twelve years later, and Anton is now a member of the Gestapo of Light. They catch wind of two Vampire lovers pulling a Michael Jackson – i.e. luring a young boy into their hideout, so it’s on like Donkey Kong. Anton arrives solo, doesn’t wait for backup, and ends up killing the Vampire. Truce broken, repressed Darkies get pissed, peace is threatened, world is going to end, etc.
Night Watch is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who has a background in music videos. This is both a blessing and a curse because the visuals are a mixed bag. There is some interesting and quite stunning imagery, but there is way too much style over substance. I’m not a fan of filmmaking that treats me like I forgot to take my Ritalin. There is some trite, hyperactive editing and stylized subtitles that succeed only in distracting me from the film and making me nauseous. Other than that, the look of the film is good, but not extraordinary; it serves its purpose.
Another problem I had with the film is lack of lore. Given that this film is supposed to be an epic trilogy, I was in the dark about certain aspects of the Night Watch universe. For example, the “gloom” is this cloud that envelops someone who is getting attacked by a Darkie. At least that’s what I think it is, because it’s never really explained. It’s cryptic elements such as this that make the universe feel less rich. Maybe exposition is being left for the sequels, but the film should still stand on its own merit. What if Star Wars never bothered to explain the force? I don’t like a movie that panders, but the audience needs a little clue here and there.
The cast is solid overall. Anton is a likeable antihero, with his sunglasses glued to his face and typical stoic coolness. His crew is cool as well, but after they’re introduced, we hardly see them at all. I wanted more shape shifter action. Their headquarters is inside the Light and Power building (get it??) and their boss is a take-no-shit hard ass. Nothing really new here. All in all, quite a few interesting characters are introduced, but the only one we really get to know is Anton.
Two major plots unfold throughout the course of the film, and this is another area where the film falls short. One of these plots is introduced, developed, and wrapped up nicely without having any real bearing on the rest of the story. It could have been completely cut out of the film without affecting the other more important plot, which ends on a cliffhanger that comes dangerously close to ripping off Star Wars in reverse. The story is not structured very well, most likely due to an unfocused adaptation of the book. The problem could even lie in the fact that the adaptation is too faithful, since the original author co-wrote the screenplay with the director. It already feels like they were stretching for two hours of content, which makes me wonder what they have planned for the sequels.
The film has a lot of potential, but I think it bites off more than it can chew. I have read the budget for the film was around five million. Kudos to the filmmakers if this is accurate, because the production value easily rivals Hollywood blockbuster fare. This movie has a lot going for it, but the detractions hindered my enjoyment and left me with a more or less indifferent opinion. Night Watch did not leave me salivating for the sequel, and I’m not sure if it is strong enough to carry a trilogy. I suppose time will tell.