Written by Diane Tillis
Only once in a blue moon will a filmmaker come along to change the way films are created…for an entire country! Kazakhstan – born director Timur Bekmambetov is best known in America as the director for Wanted (2008) and for producing 9 (2009) alongside Tim Burton, but in Russia he is known as the man who changed the film industry after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His plan was to shake up the whole Russian film world with a feature film that was unlike anything done in the country before. Night Watch was his answer: a visionary fantasy horror film with an astonishing collaboration of mind-altering visual effects, suspenseful terror, and adrenaline-fueled action.
The story is very familiar to fantasy and science fiction enthusiasts of both the film and novel media – a 1000-year-old truce between the forces of the Dark and the forces of the Light was agreed upon to create a balance on earth. The truce also made each side agree that no one could be forced to good or evil, that people had to choose freely of their own reasoning. To maintain this balance, each side has soldiers to maintain the peace. The soldiers of the Light would be called the Night Watch, while the soldiers of the Dark would be called the Day Watch. Both had orders to make sure the other side obeyed the truce. However, an ancient prophecy foretold the arrival of the Great One who could end the threat of an apocalyptic battle for dominance between the Light and the Dark forces. Mankind’s destiny would be revealed by whichever side the Great One chooses to align him or herself with. The background of the film is revealed in a short prologue that might deter certain viewers who are quick to judge.
The main protagonist is introduced in a flashback sequence to 1992. Anton Gordesky is a brokenhearted man desperate to win back his ex-fiancée’s heart. So desperate in fact that Anton seeks the help of a witch who uses black magic. This Dark Other — an ‘Other’ is one who possesses supernatural powers — prepares a potion to help Anton. She is stopped before the spell is complete by three Night Watch soldiers. The witch reveals that Anton is also an Other and must now discover for himself which side to choose. Flash-forward twelve years to the present; Anton is a soldier of the Night Watch and on the search for the Great One. The prophecy is beginning to unfold, and each side is trying to discover who he or she is before the other. The fate of humanity depends upon the outcome of a choice.
Night Watch was the first big-budget Russian fantasy film and the first blockbuster in the post-Soviet industry, but one isn’t enough. The film is based off the Russian novel The Night Watch written by Sergei Lukyanenko and is the first of a trilogy of novels. The adaptations were coined to be Russia’s Lord of the Rings. In fact, the first film Night Watch went on to gross more in Russia than the Fellowship of the Ring, $16 million vs. $14.6 million USD! Despite the success it received in its native land, no one was expecting it to be a hit in the western world, especially against American audiences’ deep lack of interest in subtitled films. Night Watch has a Russian soul with a dense narrative which can be difficult to get through if you have no familiarity with the source material. However, even with a dense narrative, the film has one thing going for it that separates it from all the other light vs. dark fantasy films – the visual effects are stunning! The visual effects are by far the most interesting aspect of the film, especially for Russian filmmakers who have never attempted this artistic aspect before. While modern Western filmmakers and viewers will be familiar with such effects, you have to take into respect that Russia is just beginning to learn this computer-generated art, which makes it all the more amazing.
The film has been released in aspect ratio 1.85:1. This is a very dark film, meaning most scenes take place at night or on dark sets. The few scenes that do take place during the day demonstrate the sharpness of the colors on sets and used by props. The abundance of darkness and shadows are used to create the atmosphere of the film. Darkness does not consume the colors, but contrasts them rather nicely. The black levels are normal. Overall there are no distinguishing concerns with the video quality of the film.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound system should not be played on the highest volume. The audio is relatively level, but the occasional sound effect may make you turn the volume down a click or two. When 20th Century Fox bought the rights to distribute the film in America, they decided to do something different with subtitles for Night Watch. Instead of the traditional white text scrolling on the bottom of the screen, the subtitles of Night Watch change color and position on the screen, simulate dripping blood, stutter, and dissolve into red vapor. These alterations allow the non-native speaker to be more engaged with the film since their eyes have to move more.
There is a subtitled commentary by the novelist Sergei Lukyanenko that can appear on the top of the screen. He discusses several literary aspects that the film covers such as the idea of redemption. It is slightly distracting, being that there isare now three things happening simultaneously on the screen: the subtitles to the film’s audio, the subtitles to Sergei’s commentary, and the film.
The only special features on this release of Night Watch is an extended ending with optional commentary by director Bekmambetov and a sneak peak at the upcoming sequels: Day Watch and Twilight Watch. The extended edition ending only gives away a little bit as to the sequel Day Watch and Bekmambetov explains that this is the reason it was cut. He is very softspoken on the commentary to the film and at times is difficult to understand. The sneak peak explores the history of the project and the future sequels.
Night Watch was released into limited theaters in America back in 2006. I was lucky enough to go to a preview showing of the film as a testing group by 20th Century Fox to see how well it could possibly do in theaters. I can’t speak for the other 200 people in the theater, but a close friend and I were awestruck by the visual effects, the integration of the subtitles, the eerie music, and the possibility of more. If you are a fantasy/supernatural/vampire/visual effects fan, I would strongly recommend buying a copy of this film to add to your collection. Everyone else, I would rent first to see if it is your cup of tea. After re-watching the film and reading the source material, I appreciate the film’s attempt to capture the novel. Just as it is impossible to capture all of the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in three hours, imagine capturing a novel of the same length and depth into a film only two hours long!