Once it receives its long due stateside release, the smash Russian fantasy epic Night Watch will inevitably be compared to The Matrix, most likely because of all the people running about a modern-day city (wearing sunglasses at night, no less) doing battle with forces that normal folks can’t even see. Also, the film was a box office hit and the first in a planned trilogy. But truth be told, Night Watch has much more in common with the worlds created by fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman, most especially his classic Neverwhere (filmed for British TV) about a secret world existing just below the surface of everyday London. The two works share an abiding interest in the careful creation and delineation of complex universes of the unreal – not to mention a love of dark, shady places, and large-scale struggles between good and evil.
A sonorously narrated prologue gives us the lay of the land. In the world, there are humans and there are Others – who can pass as humans but are in effect a grab-bag of seers, wizards, shape-shifters, and vampires “as varied as the stars in the sky.” The Others are divided up (easily enough) into those that serve the Dark and those serving the Light. A long time ago, they fought each other to a standstill in a massive battle, and so established a truce whereby they could co-exist with each other, only they each had to basically leave the humans alone. To ensure that each side is living up to its end, they each patrol the human sphere, Dark Others on the Day Watch and Light Others on the Night Watch. Article continues below
The disconcerting start to what we can already tell is going to be a pretty big showdown between good and evil is the appearance of Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky), who’s despondent over his ex-girlfriend being with another man, standing at the door of a woman he thinks to be a witch doctor of some sort but turns out to be a Dark Other trying to influence him to do evil. At the moment of her apprehension by the Night Watch, Anton discovers he is an Other himself. And so cut to Moscow, 2004, with a hollow-eyed Anton on duty with the Night Watch, using his limited abilities of foresight to help find a kid who is being hunted by a couple of Dark Other vampires. Events snowball in a mazelike fashion and soon it looks like the kid might have something to do with a prophecy about an Other who will come and tip the balance between Dark and Light, smashing the truce and returning the tribes to constant warfare.
Considering that Night Watch is a Russian film shot for reportedly about $5 million, it looks absolutely fantastic. The special effects are used sparingly but effectively, and most often for good reason (apparently it’s hard to convince several thousand crows to endlessly circle the apartment building of a cursed woman). Director Timur Bekmambetov (he also co-wrote the script with Sergein Lukyaneko, who wrote the source novel) does first-rate work here, injecting just enough levity into an otherwise pitch-black universe, and always keeping viewers mindful of the vast world outside the scope of this one film, so that by the type you’re hit with the hammer-blow finale, a strong desire to see the sequel is pretty well guaranteed.
Although one of the strongest features of the film is how simultaneously professional and yet unique-feeling it is (no Hollywood clone-work here, with the exception of too many CSI-esque special effects shots), where Bekmambetov could actually stand to take a few hints from The Matrix and the Hollywood machine is in how to shoot a fight. Although these are fairly sparse in a film that’s packed fair to the gills with suspense and dread, Bekmambetov’s idea of how to do one seems to be waving the camera about in a random fashion, leaving the viewer with little idea of what’s happening. There will be plenty of those anyway, as Night Watch doesn’t slow down to point out road signs to those who have to be spoon-fed every little hint – this is Brothers Grimm-type fantasy here, the forests are dark and you can easily lose your way if you’re not careful.