The Eternal Battle Between the Forces of Light and Dark. The Chosen One. The Coming End of the World. These are the basic tropes that populate about 99% of fantasy novels, and for some reason no one seems willing to move beyond them. So the problem becomes how do you make this stuff fresher, and the solution from Russia is to dress it up in Goth drag. Thus was born Night Watch, the first film in a trilogy (also important – fantasy comes in trilogies. Almost always. Even if the series is longer than three books, it will usually be split up into a series of trilogies. What’s funny is that this is all because of modern fantasy’s rigorous aping of Tolkien, and he didn’t even like having his Lord of the Rings split into three) about The Eternal Battle Between the Forces of Light and Dark, and the coming of The Chosen One, who will herald the Coming of the End of the World.
These Forces of Light and Dark have been under an uneasy truce for centuries – the two sides met in battle and were so evenly matched it was clear both armies would be annihilated. The opposing forces set some rigid ground rules for engagement, and each side created a police force that would monitor the truce compliance of the other side – Night Watch keeps an eye on the forces of Evil, while Day Watch checks up on the good guys. They live secretly among us, driving secret jet trucks and perhaps making their own video games (this is in the movie, and I honestly didn’t understand it. See for yourself and tell me what you think).
Our hero is Anton, and we meet him 12 years ago when he goes to a local witch lady to get a love spell to win back his girlfriend. When the witch tells him that the ex is pregnant – with another man’s child – Anton agrees to have her use magic to abort the baby. In pop the Night Watch, who have been setting up a sting, using Anton as live bait. What they didn’t take into account is that Anton is one of them – the maddeningly ill-defined Others, one of the magical type people. The big question when an Other is outed is which side of The Eternal Battle they’ll pick.
Anton picks the white hats, and we flash forward to today (or 2004, when this came out in Russia and proceeded to be the country’s biggest ever box office hit). He’s living as a vampire – again, maddeningly ill-defined and never really explained, like so much in the film – when his bosses tell him he to trail a kid who is illegally under the sway of a Dark Other vampire. While tracking the kid Anton bumps into a woman, and his ill-defined (see a pattern here?) powers of precognition warn him that she’ll soon be at the center of an ill-defined energy vortex.
Things get complicated, and we’re introduced to a number of – you guessed it! – ill-defined characters, all of whom thankfully are visually interesting, and easy to tell apart. I couldn’t quite tell you if Night Watch operatives Bear and Cub are shapechangers or werebeasts or just have a spell or if Bear even has any power or is just a fat, hairy gay dude, but you can point them out in the film. And the stuff that we do see and sort of understand is cool – the villain pulls out his own spine to use as a sword, a woman is imprisoned as an owl for decades, a family is frozen mid-dinner so that the Night Watch can use their apartment as a base of operations. The film is filled with interesting imagery and seemingly intriguing ideas, but everything blasts past so quickly you don’t get a chance to really enjoy it. (One thing that I was able to pick up from the film is that housing in Moscow sucks)
What I can’t figure out is if any of this works or not. The film doesn’t take the time to define its terms, its boundaries, its rules – anything at all. On one hand this is kind of exciting – the movie isn’t being bogged down in endless expositionary babble, and really, how important are the little things like whether or not all the Others fought in the big battle at the beginning of the film, as seems to sort of be indicated? It all depends on how you approach the created world. Novelist/screenwriter Sergei Lukyanenko and director Timur Bekmambetov have created a world that looks whole and deep, but you don’t have the chance to ever get a closer look at it. I feel like if you did the whole thing would be like the fake Western town in Blazing Saddles, and that maybe these guys really don’t know just what an Other actually is besides a very broad term for “people who do cool stuff and have cool powers.”
As two hours in the theater Night Watch works if you’re turning off the analysis section of your brain. The movie looks great, and it has some fun action sequences. In many ways it reminds me of some Asian films I’ve enjoyed where I couldn’t quite always figure out what the motivations or relationships of some of the characters were. Once I let go of that, though, I could dig the film.
I hope that what’s really going on here is that Night Watch is setting up the bare bones of this universe, which will be filled in by the sequel, Day Watch. I wasn’t as completely blown away by Night Watch as some others were (although I will say that the subtitles in this film, which are interactive with the action on screen, are the best I have ever seen), and I’m not going to get on the condescending bandwagon of “Look at how well the Russians did with their movie!” – a movie is a movie. But I am interested in Day Watch, and finding out where this film’s excellent cliffhanger is leading. There’s an interesting, if derivative (unless they never had The Matrix and Blade in Russia), imagination at work here, and I look forward to seeing what else it has thought up.
By the way: I have seen the film twice now (slightly different edits, I was told), and I have to say that the second viewing was the better of the two. I wasn’t so hung up on finding clues to the backstory and mythology of the film and was just taking the scenes as they came.