Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor) (2004)

2006-02-17 (Limited release)

It is easier to kill the Light within oneself, than to scatter the Darkness around.

— Geser (Vladimir Menshov)

Hundreds of years ago, the story in Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor) goes, the warriors of Light met the armies of Darkness in a pitched battle that threatened to consume the world. The supernatural fighters — psychics, mages, and shape-shifters on the side of Light; vampires, witches, and demons for Dark — realized no victory could be gained. So they declared an Armistice, trading war for bureaucracy. Since then, both sides have repeatedly baited one another into breaching the peace.

The eponymous Night Watch is charged with patrolling the forces of Darkness. Through a front they call the City Light Company, they license vampires, allowing only a small number of human victims to be sacrificed. It’s unclear what their counterparts in the Day Watch do, besides dress stylishly and drive impressive sports cars. As in any truce, the terms seem a little one-sided. Whatever resentment the forces of Darkness feel, however, is mitigated by the prophecy of the Great Other, who, it is foretold, will choose Darkness and shatter the Armistice.

Into this epic struggle comes Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), whose wife has left him for another man. Hoping to bring her back, he approaches a Dark Sorceress. The Night Watch breaks up their meeting and, realizing Anton can see them, recognize Anton as an Other, one of their own.

Most of this action takes place in the first 20 minutes of Night Watch, which then skips forward 12 years. Self-consciously epic, the film doesn’t get any simpler from there, as a demon funnel, a doomed airliner, and a cursed virgin complicate things. Peripheral characters on both sides appear and then are dropped; the main plot, the battle for the soul of the Great Other, gets sidetracked by the cursed virgin subplot. Of course, there’s a fine line between “complex” and “convoluted,” and for all of Night Watch‘s character juggling, the film’s U.S. webpage features a multimedia link, “See the entire movie in two 1/2 minutes!” This is probably not a good sign.

In its native Russia, however, Night Watch was a phenomenon, becoming the highest-grossing film in the country’s history. Cinematically, the film relies heavily on current Hollywood conventions: a Fincheresque CGI camera follows a falling airplane rivet in a shot reminiscent of the opening of Fight Club, colored filters and sunglasses-sporting heroes hearken back to the The Matrix, and a particularly impressive animated sequence betters the one from Kill Bill. Arguably, all of these techniques are now commonplace, so dismissing them as derivative is unfair, but, excepting the animated sequence, neither is their usage here particularly original. The falling rivet scene, for example, is closer to the beautifully unnecessary CGI fly-through in Fincher’s Panic Room than to his camera tricks in Fight Club.

The inevitable backlash focused on just those aspects in accusing the film of being an attempt to ape Hollywood at the expense of a genuinely Russian style; the Russian intellectual group “Padonki” labeled the movie “Nochnoj Pozor” (“Night Shame”). The country that produced Eisenstein and Tarkovsky, the argument goes, should aspire to more than derivative fantasy. But this complaint only reframes the perennial one against Hollywood, that it churns out formulaic work that appeals to the largest possible audience. Implicit in this argument is the elitist “blame the audience” premise that has poisoned many a discussion of “independent film” in America. Night Watch‘s Russian critics, latecomers to laissez faire capitalism, seem to have a good grip on the rhetoric of the Commerce vs. Art, but, like many of their U.S. counterparts, haven’t realized the futility of that dichotomy. Like the forces of Light and Darkness, Art and Commerce work within a negotiated, often tense, Armistice, as they have for hundreds of years.

The metaphysics of Night Watch‘s plot are not new, so its engagement of the audience hinges on how it complicates this framework. Unfortunately, the first 90 minutes are spent establishing the film’s world at the expense of character development. Anton is, perhaps predictably, a character of considerable moral ambiguity living in a black-and-white world, but that tension is foregrounded only at the climax, when the Great Other must choose between Light and Dark. Intellectually, the audience knows this is a momentous decision, but without any emotional grip on the characters involved, it’s difficult to care one way or the other.

Then Night Watch ends, on a remarkably anti-climactic note. It’s not so much a cliffhanger as a drop off a cliff. The apocalypse, it seems, will have to wait for the sequel.