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Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)
Reviewed by Matthew Pook, © 2005

Format: Movie
By:   Timur Bekmambetov (director)
Released:   September 30, 2005
Review Date:   October 15, 2005
Audience Rating:   Rated R

When you think of Russian movies, it is always of the high art of the Soviet era — Tarkovsky’s Solyaris (Solaris) or Eisenstein’s Bronenosets Potyomkim (Battleship Potemkin). All that changes with the release of Nochnoi Dozor or Night Watch, heralded as the first Russian blockbuster. Based upon the novel by Sergei Lukyanenko, this is a supercharged supernatural thriller. It's the first part of a trilogy and Timur Bekmambetov’s calling card to Hollywood.

The setting is contemporary Moscow, where an uneasy truce is maintained between the forces of Light and Dark, forged a thousand years before in order to prevent the annihilation of both sides. Under the terms of the treaty, both sides would police each other. During daylight hours the Lord of the Dark, General Zavulon (Victor Verzhbitsky), commands Day Watch to maintain vigil over the streets of Moscow. Their counterpart is Night Watch, commanded by the Lord of the Light, Boris Geser (Vladimir Menshov), from his offices at the City Light Company.

When an ordinary human is exposed to the supernatural, he is free to choose between Light and Dark. In choosing, he becomes one of the "Other," a vampire, shapeshifter, seer, witch or warlock according to his nature. In the world of Night Watch such creatures exist uneasily side-by-side in a grubby, seedy underworld hidden form ordinary society.

The protagonist is Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky), a seer and officer with Night Watch. Exposed to the Other after an attempt to have his wife cursed, he is a troubled and haunted figure, dedicated to the cause of Light but afflicted by inexplicable visions. Tasked to locate a young boy who might be a vampire couple’s next victim, Anton encounters Svetlana (Maria Poroshina), who turns out to the central figure of an ancient prophecy, the virgin of legend capable of bringing down an apocalyptic vortex upon the city. In order to both avert this disaster and save the boy, Anton most deal with both sides of Moscow’s supernatural underworld and delve back into his past.

Nothing in Night Watch is all that original. The film’s elements seem to have come from equally from Underworld, the Blade and Matrix trilogies and a host of pop videos — not to mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which we amusingly get to see in Russian. (As an aside, the film feels perfect for an adaptation as a World of Darkness game setting, one more indication that unoriginal elements can be remade into something new and intriguing.)

Director Timur Bekmambetov takes all these elements and weaves them in a fashion that manages to be both low key and dazzling, employing his special effects to enhance the story, not replace it.

For instance, one aspect of Night Watch that really shines is the film’s innovative use of subtitles. When the vampires call to the young boy, their siren song is spelled out in wisps of his nosebleed. Elsewhere the subtitles scream, shout and weave their way onto the screen, made to be part of the movie and not just a necessity for our lack of Russian. They enhance and emphasise the story rather than merely translating the dialogue into English.

At worst Night Watch is overwrought and overlong, suffering from a muddled climax that leaves much to be explained in the sequels. What is the Gloom, the realm that an Other side steps into when he activates his abilities, heralded by the buzzing of mosquitoes and which threatens the safety of the untrained? And is there significance to the baby dolls on spiders’ legs that drag themselves across the screen? Hopefully these and other questions will be answered in the sequels, of which the first, Day Watch, has already been shot.

At its best it is intriguing, heavy on mood and character, particularly Moscow’s grubbiness, and with a cast that is all the better for lacking Hollywood superficiality. Night Watch perhaps suffers from the journey being better than the climax, but the journey will bedazzle and ensure that you return for the sequel.

Matthew Pook is games editor for RevolutionSF.

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