NIGHT WATCH is a film that has polarised critics and viewers alike, but to my mind it deserves neither the bulletin-board hype nor the scorn of the pretentious broad-sheet reviewers. It is a pretty entertaining, stylishly filmed but also fairly standard good versus bad, fantasy movie.
The movie is the first of a trilogy based on the novels of Sergei Lukyanenko. The idea is that there are a bunch of people who have a variety of special powers, such as the ability to see into the future, or to change form. These are the Others. Usually, people realise that they are an Other when a traumatic incident causes them to manifest “super-human” strength – such as a crash victim being able to pull a car off of another victim.
Back in the Middle Ages, a great battle was fought between the Dark Others (baddies) and Light Others (good guys). However, in a peculiarly Russian Cold War moment of perception, the leaders of each faction realised that as both sides were equally well-matched, there was no chance of either side winning the battle. The only outcome was Mutually Assured Destruction. So the Dark and Light Others agreed a truce. When a new Other became aware of his powers, he would be allowed to choose which side he would join without coercion from either side. To ensure the truce held, there would be a Night Watch made up of good guys and a Day Watch made up of bad guys.
Now, here’s where stuff gets tricky. According to legend, one day an Other will appear who is more powerful than everyone else. His choice of good versus evil will alter the balance of power forever. And that’s where NIGHT WATCH, the movie, brings us in. We see the discovery of the child who will change the balance of power, the Night Watch trying to protect him from vampires, and his eventual choice.
Clearly, if you don’t like films about magic, wizards, vampires and epic battles between Good and Evil, then NIGHT WATCH is not going to be the film for you. But I have to say that, within this genre of Buffy-type extravaganzas, NIGHT WATCH is a good film. It has a suitably mythic story and the movie contains a narrative arc that scratches upon the surface of a richly imagined world that will no doubt be explored more fully in the second and third parts of the trilogy. In addition, there are a lot of “extras” that you don’t normally get in a film like this. For a start, the fact that it is set in contemporary Moscow already lends it a strange other-worldly feel. Second, there is a lot of attention to detail and the rugged reality of such a world. I find it hard to engage in movies that contain such ludicrous concepts as vampires, so this kind of gritty realism helps sucker me in. I particularly liked the scene where the hero, Anton, goes to a meat market to get a glass of pig’s blood to drink. You get a shot of the glass and the blood looks really nauseating. Nowhere in fantasy movies do you ever see the grim consequences of vampirism so well played-out. Third, as one would expect from a director with extensive experience in advertising, everything looks really slick and stylish. The way in which Others move from the real world into the Gloom and the impact of the Gloom on their bodies is brilliantly drawn. Kinda like CSI and Fight Club meet Ghostbusters.
All in all, while I doubt if NIGHT WATCH will be as revolutionary and influential as AKIRA or THE MATRIX, it’s still an enjoyable ride and definitely of superior cinematic quality.
NIGHT WATCH premiered at Moscow 2004 and, having become Russia's first bona fide blockbuster in that year, played in most European markets in 2005. It got a limited US release in February 2006 and is available on DVD. The sequel was released in Russia in January, and the final part is is pre-production.