In the words of Fred Kwan from Galaxy Quest: That was a hell of a thing!
I hope you enjoyed watching Night Watch, a fascinating and visually inventive film full of ideas. Timur Bekmambetov's breakthrough movie artfully mines history, gothic literature, pop culture and the horror and fantasy genres to create a strikingly original mythology, stunning visuals, and a compelling story in which the fate of the world hangs in the outcome. But, according to Bekmambetov, the real magic happened in the editing room.
In the DVD commentary track for Night Watch, the Russian director likens film editing to painting and composing music. Where the painter or musician has brushes or notes, the filmmaker's tools are scenes. "Editing is the movie," Bekmambetov says.
Night Watch is full of stirring visual information and complex concepts. It would be a chore to sit through the movie if not for good editing, but Bekmambetov and his crew manage to pull it off. The filmmakers even artfully weave animated subtitles into the visual thread to help move the story along. They secure an energetic pace that's never too busy or too lethargic. That's a tough thing to do when you're making a crazy ass movie about conflicted mystical beings battling oppressed vampires in dank, modern day Moscow.
Russia's first "blockbuster," the first of a trilogy based on the novel by Sergey Lukyanenko, tells the story of Light and Dark "Others," human-looking supernaturals living among us who are constantly in conflict with each other. The film starts out with a savagely charged medieval battle scene between the two forces. A truce is called, a pact is made and life continues. The Light forces create a police agency, called Night Watch, charged with keeping the evil Dark Others in check and the world in balance (a simple metaphor for our own conflicting good and evil impulses). The Dark Others, constantly burned by the tilted truce in favor of the Light, plot to take over by convincing a super powerful Other to join the dark side, thus tilting the scale in their favor.
Our anti-hero is the cynical Anton (Nochnoy Dozor), a Light Other with Dark tendencies. He's friendly with the Darks, who it seems are all vampires, and is used by Night Watch for his tracking and "seeing" abilities. We follow Anton through stunning action scenes and poetic down time, tracking down Darks who break the truce by feeding off humans and turning them into vampires.
Night Watch might seem like pretty simple good vs. evil type stuff at first, but it becomes a lot more complicated as the movie progresses. Even though they have good intentions, the Lights burden the Darks with shifty laws and clumsily forged ordinances. Much like humans, the Others are not perfect and their troubles are almost always self created. Adding to the complexity is something called "the gloom," a shadow realm where Others can exist but only temporarily, since it feeds on their life. Bekmambetov cleverly illustrates this by populating the gloom with blood sucking mosquitoes.
The movie sometimes buckles under the weight of its own complex mythology. I'm sure some scenes frustrated or confused some viewers at first. Thankfully, the movie is full of compelling expository scenes that clear up most of the confusion before we get to the cliffhanger ending.
Night Watch is a rarity. It's a visionary film rooted in traditional genres that breaks new ground. The 2006 sequel Day Watch ups the stunts and visual trickery, but it's far from perfect, and it somehow feels a lot more hollow that its predecessor. Here's hoping Bekmambetov returns to the franchise soon and makes the third part in the trilogy, Twilight Watch.