The word “fantasy” conjures up many familiar images: magic, wizards, swords, and so on. But the Russian film Night Watch, the first in a trilogy based on novels by fantasy writer Sergei Lukyanenko, takes the idea of fantasy into a far different realm – that of modern-day Russia. The result is a movie that combines world-changing magic with everyday reality for a marvelous, unique experience.
Thousands of years ago, the armies of Light and Darkness met on a bridge and battled. But the battle was so evenly matched, there could be no winner. So the leader of Light, Geser (Vladimir Menshov) and the leader of Darkness, Zavulon (Victor Verzhbitsky) formed a truce. Each side formed a team of watchmen to make sure the other side did not break the truce and upset the balance of Light and Darkness.
Jump to modern-day Russia, where ordinary man Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) consults a witch. Anton’s wife has left him for another man and he wants her back. The witch assures Anton her spells will bring his wife back, but at a cost – his wife is pregnant and the spell will cause her to lose the child. Anton, told by the witch that the child is not his, agrees.
But before the witch can complete the spell, members of the Night Watch, the forces of Light who keep a watch on Dark forces, stop the spell. Anton is pulled into a twilight realm called The Gloom, where the Light and Dark forces fight, away from human sight. It is then that Anton realizes that he is an Other, a person with special gifts, who can choose to be on the side of Light or Dark.
Anton chooses Light, and works for the Night Watch as a vampire hunter and occasional seer. While trying to prevent a vampire from calling a young victim to her, Anton sees a woman who is the center of a vortex of bad luck – those she touches falls ill and die, and soon her presence means Moscow is threatened by tornadoes and plane crashes. Anton has to help save the young victim of the vampire, and prevent the vortex from destroying the city and upsetting the balance between Light and Dark.
Night Watch is a complicated film, and not just because it’s the first in a trilogy and has to set up the trilogy’s mythology (something it does with surprising ease). Nothing is simple in the world of Night Watch – the forces of Darkness must be kept in balance, not defeated. The Night Watch do good work, but often use human bait. Though Light and Darkness are opposed to each other, everything is shades of grey.
It’s a complex, divided film visually as well. Witches, sorceresses, and shape-shifters dwell in a society that is itself divided; luxurious apartments for the haves, grimy apartments and crowded subways for the have-nots. The Russian setting makes the film, in a way, an even more otherworldly experience than the Narnia or Lord of the Rings movies – those films dealt in mythology and archetypes familiar to Western Europe, while the world of Night Watch is very Russian, and though it takes place in our world, very foreign.
Much of the success of Night Watch lies in its production design and special effects. Though the film only cost $4 million to make, the effects are often dazzling, with some terrific Matrix-esque sequences where time slows down. In one showcase scene, we see a rivet fall off an airplane and follow the rivet’s plunge through the air, down into a person’s apartment. It’s glorious eye candy that also serves the story and the creation of the Night Watch world. Even the subtitles (the film is in Russian save for an English voice-over at the prologue and epilogue) work into the film’s unique design, moving and even changing color.
My one criticism of Night Watch is its fast pace. The movie offers a lot of new ideas and a complicated story, and needs to give the audience time to catch its breath and absorb what it’s just seen. It’s a movie you need to pay attention to, or you’ll be lost.
If you’re tired of cookie cutter movies, and looking for something that will both dazzle the eye and stimulate the brain, look no further than Night Watch.
Night Watch comes to Blu-ray hot on the heels of Bekmambetov’s smash hit, “Wanted”, and fans of that film wondering where the director came up with such exciting and groundbreaking visual effects need look n further than this modern classic. Fox delivers Night Watch in a blood-curdling 1080p 1.85:1 transfer that looks incredible, with razor sharp detail, an almost tangible sense of depth, and a wonderfully balanced color palette. While there’s some fine cinematic grain present in the large scale action sequences, I am of the opinion that this was a stylistic choice rather than any fault in the transfer. This is the best the film has looked, and Fox delivers yet another reference quality title from its catalog.
The audio is equally superb, with both the Russian and English soundtracks presented in Dolby True HD 5.1, each offering pulverizing bass, and all-encompassing surround effects. The opening sequence, in which the armies of light and dark clash on the bridge, literally had the breakables on my shelves dancing from the vibration, while quieter, more subtle effects (glass breaking, wind, distant howls and growls) came across with amazing clarity. Overall, a fantastic presentation!
Supplements are carryovers from the previous DVD release, but are nonetheless of solid quality, and welcome additions. First up, we get a fairly interesting commentary by Bekmambetov, as well as a text commentary by author, Sergei Lukyanenko. Both commentaries offer different perspectives on the word of Night Watch, with Bekmambetov’s obviously skewing more toward the visual representation of Lukyanenko’s creation, while the author’s text commentary expands upon the universe with comparisons to his books. A trio of short featurettes (SD), stills gallery, and trailer (HD), round out a solid if not spectacular assortment of goodies.
With Timur Bekmambetov’s newfound success in the west, it’s a great time for his new fans to discover the series that first brought him Western attention. While we’re all still waiting for the third chapter in this proposed trilogy, it’s nice to be able to see this film (as well as the sequel, Day Watch) released on Blu-ray, where these films can truly be appreciated for the scrumptious visual smorgasbords they are!