This is a Russian film, the first of a “trilogy” about an eternal war between the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness, which are perfectly balanced and have forged a truce dictating that neither side interfere with humans, unless humans freely choose to join them. The “Night Watch” of the title are basically a police force that ensures the forces of darkness abide by the truce; their counterparts are the “Day Watch” (also the title of the second film) who ensure that the forces of Light abide by the truce. The members of both groups are known as “Others,” human beings with special powers that vary from person to person. NIGHT WATCH begins with Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky) visiting a fortune teller (actually, an ”Other”) to put a curse on the wife who left him, terminating her pregnancy in the hope that it will drive her back into his arms. At the last second, Gorodetsky has second thoughts, and the plot is foiled by the intervention of the Night Watch, who are surprised to find that Gorodetsky can see them even though they are cloaked from human visibility. The only explanation is that Gorodetsky is himself an Other.
We pick up the story several years later, with Gorodetsky now a member of the Night Watch, who sides co-exist relatively peacefully with the Day Watch as long as the truce holds (they even interact socially to some degree). Recently, however, things have taken a turn for the worse: Gorodetsky kills one of the Dark Others in the line of duty — but without authorization. It seems there is a prophecy of an Other who will tip the scales between Light and Dark, and it’s somehow mixed up with another character, a virgin who has been cursed so that everyone she comes in contact with falls ill or dies, and there’s some kind of extra-dimensional vortex above her that is opening and creating havoc on Earth. While all this is going on Gorodetsky is also tracking a vampire who has targeted a young boy, whose age (if you do the math) indicates he was born right around the time of that almost terminated pregnancy. Could this be Gorodetsky’s son? And if he is an Other, will he join with the father who almost terminated him or with the forces of Darkness?
NIGHT WATCH is a reasonably good fantasy film — with more emphasis on action that horror. Although clearly inspired by effects-laden Hollywood blockbusters, the Russian film avoids many of their pitfalls: director Timur Bekmambetov makes excellent use of CGI to portray the paranormal events but avoids the silly martial arts extravagance of the UNDERWORLD movies. Thanks to its Russian heritage, NIGHT WATCH has a look and feel different from its U.S. counterparts; there is a drab monotone to the settings and photography, a sense of living in a run-down world.
This absence of gloss gives the film a relatively believable, lived-in feel that lends some emotional weight to the events, but the dreary, run-down atmosphere also bleeds over into the pacing, which occasionally feels slow, in spite of the abundance of action. The script attempts to weave together too many plot threads and fails to create a seamless fabric. Not only are pieces left dangling, but also the back-and-forth stitching unravels the interesting part of the tapestry as the thread becomes wrapped up in other bits. The result is a film that feels both overburdened with exposition (not only do we get the prologue about the truce but also a flashback about the virgin) and under-explained. (For example, it’s never really clear why Gorodetsky’s killing of the vampire sparked such turmoil — he was clearly acting in self-defense to stop the vampire’s unauthorized attack on the boy.)
On the plus side, the film does a good job of portraying the uneasy truce, with Gorodetsky maintaining civil contact with his vampire neighbor across the hall. The film aims for a Manichean view of the world, with Good and Evil equally balanced, the outcome of their struggle not a foregone conclusion. In fact, the film questions the morality of the Night Watch, leaving open the question of whether they can really claim to represent Good.
This blurring of the lines creates a more complex, less simplistic world than often seen in fantasy films, but it also somewhat mitigates the impact of the epic clash between Light and Darkness. This is probably necessary because the film is the first in a trilogy, and the story has to take a negative turn at the end in order to set up the sequel.
Needless to say, this ending is far from satisfying. Like much else in NIGHT WATCH, it seems to give us a glimpse of things we will see again (hopefully in more depth) in the follow-up. Fortunately, despite this frustrating sense of an unfinished story, NIGHT WATCH is easily good enough to make you want to see DAY WATCH.
BEHIND THE SCENES
NIGHT WATCH is based on the first book of a trilogy. The film sequel, DAY WATCH, which was shot back-to-back with NIGHT WATCH, combines elements from the next two books. Like SUPERMAN and SUPERMAN II, NIGHT WATCH and its sequel DAY WATCH were filmed back to back. A third film, to be titled TWILIGHT WATCH, is scheduled to be shot separately, in English for release in 2009. Although it might seem odd to switch from Russian to English for the conclusion of the trilogy, the structure of the films does not conform exactly to the novels; the English-language NIGHT WATCH 3 will be a separate entity, co-produced by Fox. Rather like Sam Raimi’s ARMY OF DARKNESS, this “sequel” will be designed as a stand-alone film that can reach a wider audience, many of whom will not have seen the first two.
Further adding to the confusion is that the NIGHT WATCH films were originally conceived as a television series. ”Originally, it was fourteen episodes, and the fourteen episodes became the first and second movie,” Bekmambetov explained of the story. “Then when we were shooting [NIGHT WATCH], the writer wrote the story for the third movie, and it became a trilogy. When we released the first movie, because of rights, we understood we didn’t have time to produce a Russian trilogy, and we combined two stories for the second movie. The trilogy becomes a diptych.”
Perhaps a more apt comparison for NIGHT WATCH 3 would be to THE GRUDGE, which was also a redo of a foreign-language film that received a small art house release in the U.S. Apparently, Bekmambetov insisted on U.S. theatrical exposure when Fox came asking for a chance to make an English-language version of NIGHT WATCH, based on its success in Russia. (The film earned $16-million in its native land – eight times more than any other Russian film.)
Director Timur Bekmambetov faced the challenge of creating the computer-generated special effects in a country without an established tradition of doing that kind of work. Fortunately, the artists are there; according to Bekmambetov, it was just a matter of finding them:
“With CG, we had a lot of small studios in Russia, not big studios like Pixar,” he explained. “We had studios with five/ten talented people. We researched and created a net, a society, a community, and all of them were involved [with NIGHT WATCH].”
The English subtitling of NIGHT WATCH uses computer-generated imagery to capture the tone of the dialogue: accented words are emphasized with color; shouted words explode across the screen; whispered hypnotic commands fade in and out on opposite sides of the screen. In one of the most memorable moments, as a boy experiences a slight nosebleed in a swimming pool, the subtitles turn red, then disperse like blood dissolving in water.
Bekmambetov was closely involved with the U.S. release of NIGHT WATCH, co-writing the English translation, which is brilliantly rendered in subtitles generated with digital effects that help convey the tone of the spoken Russian dialogue: words fade in and out, are wiped off the screen as actors walk by, shift color and size to convey emphasis. At one point, as a boy suffers a nosebleed in a swimming pool, the subtitles even turn red and disperse like drops of blood dissolving in water.
Said Bekmambetov of the unusual approach. “In Russia, we had the voice,” he said. “We needed to show that somehow. The voice told us what to do.”
20th Century Fox’s DVD presents the film in a widescreen transfer on a two-sided disc. Extras include two audio commentaries, an extended ending, a brief promot piece including an interview with the director, and some trailers for other Fox home video releases.
Side One is dual layered, with 5.1 Dolby Surround in English, plus Dolby Surround in French and Spanish Dolby Surround, with an option English subtitles for the hearing impaired. The English dub is not bad: the voices match the characters; the vocal performances are good; and the lip sync is not too distracting. The English dialogue does not, however, conform exactly to the subtitled Russian.
The Special Features include an extended ending, with audio options for English or Russian (both in Dolby 5.1 Surround), plus English, French and Spanish subtitles. the NIGHT WATCH trilogy. There are trailers for BROKEN SAINTS, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, and a TV spot for THIEF, plus a three-and-a-half minute promo piece in which Bekmambetov discusses NIGHT WATCH, its sequel DAY WATCH, and the possibility of completing the trilogy with an American-made film.
The alternate ending shows Gorodetsky jumping off a building after losing his son to the Dark Others. Before he can hit the pavement, his descent is somehow interrupted by a ring from his cell phone, which leaves him suspended in mid-air. As a technical effect, the scene is impressive, but dramatically is looks slightly absurd – a perfect image for a cell phone commercial but not a strong ending for a feature film.
Director Timur Bekmambetov provides an English audio commentary for the extended ending, in which he relates that it was removed because dialogue between Gorodetsky and the leader of the Night Watch explained too much, and he felt it was necessary to leave some questions to be explored in the rest of the trilogy. There is a sad song in Russian on the soundtrack that remains untranslated in the English version and does not appear in the subtitles; Bekmambetov translates a line or two about the sky falling.
The DVD’s main menu includes an option for something called “Inside Look.” Although it sounds like behind-the-scenes material on NIGHT WATCH, it consists, it actually offers a supposedly “exclusive insider’s look at upcoming projects from Fox,” which is really just a a fancy way for saying you get to see the teaser trailer for their 2007 OMEN remake.
Side Two of the DVD features the original Russian language audio track, with the expressive English subtitles seen in the theatrical print (that is, actually burned into the film, not as a DVD option). Director Timur Bekmambetov offers his audio commentary in English. Author Sergei Lukyanenko provides one in Russian, which can be viewed with English, French or Spanish subtitles, independent of whether you are actually listening to the commentary. What this means is that, if you want to challenge your brain’s capacity to access multiple information streams simultaneously, you read both the dialogue and Lukyanenko’s commentary subtitled in English, while listening to Bekmambetov’s English audio commentary.
NIGHT WATCH (Nochnoy Dozer, 2004). Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Screenplay by Bekmambetov and Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Sergei Lukyanenko. Cast: Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov, Valeri Zolotukhin, Mairya Poroshina, Galina Tyunina, Yuri Kutsenko, Aleksei Chadov, Zhanna Friske, Ilya Lagutenko, Viktor Verzhbitsky.
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