Like Playing Monsters
Don’t take this the wrong way, but Night Watch is like playing monsters when you were seven: it’s only “scary” because you’ve decided it is. It’s success hangs on the audience’s willingness to pretend, it’s a little rambling and overly confident in itself, and it’s fun as hell.
Based on the novel by Sergei Lukianenko, Night Watch tells a well worn story, as familiar as so many movies and myths before it. The forces of good (the Light Others) and evil (the Dark Others) have been at war for ages, and when the two sides realize that neither can prevail they call an unsteady cease-fire. Both establish what can only be called monster-spy agencies to watch over the other. The Light Others form the Night Watch, the Dark Others form the Day Watch. These two groups skirmish and trick one another, along the periphery of human society. Their powers make them the beings of our nightmares: vampires, witches, shape-shifters.
As the monster’s cold war rages in the shadows human society marches on, and occasionally an Other is born. When they are discovered they must make a choice: join the forces of Light, or the Dark. Neither side can force an Other to their side. Many Others remain undiscovered until they are, almost literally, tripped over. This is what happens to Anton, a man driven to a witch out of a desperate attempt to get back at his cheating wife. When the Night Watch busts up the witch’s brew they discover that Anton is an Other. Forced to make his choice, he joins the Night Watch. Once in, his life is a drunken monster-hunt as he can’t face the reality of what his life is and he nearly misses out on finding himself in the middle of a grand turning point in the Others’ war.
It will not surprise anyone watching Night Watch that it is the first in a trilogy (in fact it was originally planned to be a four-part series for Russian television). It starts out with the “once upon a time” feel of the Star Wars or Lord of the Ring movies, but owes it’s greatest debt is to The Matrix, with a smaller tip of the hat to television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Night Watch is similar to the Wachowski Brothers’ film in its serious silliness and its willingness to take itself so head-on into weirdness and genre bending that you can’t help but smile and enjoy the ride. It’s a monster movie like Underworld—the monsters aren’t meant to frighten, they don’t lurk in the shadows (though they move through them). In Night Watch, the creatures’ intentions are all up front: here’s a vampire, there’s a witch, let’s watch their conversation or their screaming fight. There is some heavy exposition, some of it repetitive and silly, but once the ground-rules are set it runs along with creative visuals, some stunning and original special effects, and enough of a plot to keep you interested and engaged.
One of the films most successful ploys is its happy breaking down of popular mythology for its own purposes. Most every Other (both Light and Dark) has the ability to enter the “Gloom”, an in-between, nether reality which is like a pre-death fog. The Gloom allows them to move through doors and be invisible to humans. The fact that the Light “heroes” are only using the Gloom to fight the Dark “monsters” is the only difference in their creepy maneuvering. Another effective change to myth is that vampires are invisible to the eye but remain visible in mirrors, rather than being visible to the eye but lost in the mirror. The interest is to use myth as the starting point, not the end, and the monsters don’t tie themselves down to our expectations of how things ought to work in their monster world.
More than anything else, the imagery and lazy feel of the battle, the tired, almost time-beaten attitude of the Light and Dark generals, evokes the sense of the Cold War era and how the KGB and CIA both must have defined themselves. And not only does it play with the international game, but even better, it stands in for the internal conflicts that both East and West dealt with as bureaucracy and habit replaced any real ideological difference. The Light and Dark sides don’t stand as so much opposites on a spectrum as factions of the same unit. As we watch the CIA pull itself apart from conflicts of culture and political desire and machinations, we can see the FBI and Defense Department waiting in the wings to pick up the scraps, laugh at the losers, and shove each other around a bit. That’s what the monsters in Night Watch seem to be doing: taking pot shots and trying to “play by the rules”, because they’ve forgotten there’s any other way.
Ultimately there is one key brilliance to the movie: the heroes are only “good” because they have decided to be. Vampires can sort of hang out with Light Others and be left alone, if they accept that they must drink pig’s blood. If not, then there are consequences. Light Others live next door to Dark Others. Free will is, unlike so many other action films, not only present, it is the focus. There is no mighty evil power lurking behind the world, there is no ring which “rules them all”, there is no great and powerful Force pulling them together and washing over them if they lose control of their emotions. There is, simply, the choice to do either good or bad. In Night Watch, good and evil are not essences, they are choices exhibited through action. This makes for a smarter monster movie, and a more entertaining ride than many of the US manufactured films of recent years.
Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor) - Trailer