Night Watch

A Fresh, Russian Supernatural Thriller

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov; Reviewed by Emily Crow

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Title: Night Watch
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Starring: Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov, Valeri Zolotukhin
Released: 2004 (2006 in US)
Running Time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, disturbing images and language
Freak Nation Rating:

Night Watch (Ночной Дозор or Nochnoy Dozor) is a fantastic new Russian entry into the movie genre of supernatural thrillers — a genre that has been choking itself to death with stereotypical costuming and two-dimensional characters. And although Night Watch contains many similar elements — vampires, shapeshifters, an epic struggle between the forces of light and darkness — it brings a refreshing, revitalizing new take to them that launches it far, far above its peers.

In the mythology of Night Watch, supernatural beings — Others — have existed for centuries. Some are born with powers, but just as many become Other by having violent, undeniable encounters with the supernatural. A new Other must choose whether he or she will feed on positive or negative energy — and, ultimately, whether they will view the normal humans they live amidst as friends or food. The two sides, evenly matched, live under an uneasy truce. Those of Light, who police the Dark, are called the Night Watch. Those of the Dark, who police the Light, are called the Day Watch. But even though they have a truce, each side is seeking the prophesied Other of great power who will emerge and, by choosing a side, tip the balance.

The Others of Night Watch aren’t afraid to get grimy or disheveled while waging their battles.

Anton Gorodetsky, part of the Night Watch, sees visions of the future. He is unstable, prone to alcoholism, anger, and clouded judgment. While trying to save a young boy from becoming a vampire’s victim, he encounters something even more terrifying — a young woman who has been cursed, whose curse will destroy everything around her, escalating to apocalyptic proportions if it is not lifted. Meanwhile, around him, the forces of the Day Watch plan and manipulate from the shadows, with an agenda he must unravel before it consumes him.

Fans of the Underworld series may be disappointed with Night Watch. If you are looking for a movie with fetish style and a lot of cleavage, you won’t find it here. The characters look real, not pretty. They look disheveled, uncertain, human — even though in fact most of them are Others. They do not take time to pose dramatically on rooftops. There are no close-ups on leather boots, no chases on motorcycle. The characters wear clothes, not costumes — no PVC, no leather.

Fans of the traditional Hollywood plot pacing may be a little frustrated, too. Night Watch moves at its own pace, sometimes frenetically fast, sometimes slow. Most of the time this pace works, although there are places where the story seems to drag a little. The plot is not spoon-fed to the viewer, either. When the pace picks up, the viewer must figure out what is happening as he or she goes along. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes this is subtle. Occasionally, it is not intentional — this is a foreign film, and some nuances will get lost in the cultural translation, or in the viewer trying to juggle reading the subtitles and watching the action on-screen at the same time.

As other critics have remarked, one of the most notable things about the film’s translation is that the subtitles are masterfully interwoven into the movie. They actively enhance the experience. For example, when a vampire sends a mental call to her victim, it appears on screen written in blood from the victim’s nosebleed.

Ultimately, Night Watch is both an adaptation from a book and the first part of a trilogy. As such, it is a little frustrating, much in the same way as the Harry Potter adaptations. What is on-screen is great, but you leave with the nagging feeling that there was so much more that could have been included, and the movie is engrossing enough that you want to see it all.

So, to sum up: if you’re just looking for a movie that’s easy on the eyes, with a lot of MTV-style photography and a plot a 10-year-old could follow, this probably isn’t the movie for you.

On the other hand, if you want a richly detailed supernatural world that can even make the trite concept of vampires fresh and new again (and some of the details, like The Gloom, are just plain brilliant), if you want to see characters with depth, if you want to be intrigued, if you want to have to think about what you are watching, if you like to puzzle out mysteries, then this is the movie you have been waiting for, and you will not be disappointed.

Emily Crow is an inveterate and incorrigible geek, especially in the fields of role-playing games, horror and science fiction. She lives in the freak Mecca of San Francisco with her husband, two cats, and various permutations of housemates. There she strives daily to defy categorization and compartmentalization. As such, she has gathered a large number of adjectives that swarm about her, often agreeing and sometimes even complimenting each other — when they are not vehemently contradicting themselves. Among her favorite descriptors in this flock are: queer, married, talkative, introverted, pantheistic, animistic, agnostic, harmonious, helpful, difficult, corvidesque, and peculiar. Her superpowers include cat-herding, finding things and throwing good parties. On the pirate-monkey-robot-ninja continuum, she falls in the Monkey/Pirate quadrant.