Saturday, November 20, 2010

Guest Post: A&A's Movie A Day Presents NIGHT WATCH

The following review was written by my good friend Andy, who reviews movies with his wife Amanda at the great blog A&A's Movie A Day. The movie "Night Watch" is based on the first of a series of modern-vampire novels by Sergei Lukyanenko, also called Night Watch. It's been too long since I read Night Watch to write a proper review, but let it suffice to say it's fun, light and enjoyable urban fantasy without too much gore. 

But that's the book. Here's the movie:

Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)
Our good friend over at The Boston Bibliophile has decided that for the month of November she will be reviewing Russian books, so in a show of solidarity we decided to watch a Russian movie today. We have relatively few Russian films to choose from and this is a movie I’ve been looking forward to re-watching and reviewing for the blog for a while.

Before we put this in Amanda commented that she was surprised that it was not really that long of a movie. She’s right – it comes in at under two hours. Which is odd because in my memory it was at least four hours long. I think that must be because it is so dense. There’s a lot of world-building going on there – a whole mythos that needs to be established with its own rules and prophesies. I’m not altogether sure that it works for me, even on the second viewing, but that could be the result of the translation or some cultural divide as much as anything else.

There are some deep themes being explored here. Ideas about what is good and what is evil and what is the nature of choice. Do we chose our own destinies or are they chosen for us even when we are supposedly free? These are questions I enjoy being asked, but although they are central to the plot of this movie I feel as though they are somewhat glossed over. This movie is a jet-powered steamroller that rumbles inevitably over everything in its path, and by the end I’m feeling flattened and drained.
The background for the movie is established Lord of the Rings style with an epic battle between forces of good and evil sometime in the dark ages. Only in this movie neither side is victorious – instead there is a perfect stalemate and so the two sides establish an uneasy Truce that has lasted up to the present day. For the most part the action of this movie follows a hapless average Joe named Anton Gorodetsky. As the movie starts we are in a flash back to twelve years ago. Anton visits a woman in an attempt to win back his wife, who has left him. This woman, a witch, tells him that he can bring back his wife, but to do so he must consent in the casting of a spell to kill the unborn child that his wife is bearing. He consents to the spell, but has second thoughts, at which point all hell breaks loose. A trio of mysterious people appear out of thin air and restrain the witch, arresting her for attempting black magic in violation of the Truce. She accuses them of entrapment in their use of Anton to draw her out. And all of them are surprised that Anton himself can see them – an indication that he is not really Human, but is Other – like they are. He is a seer – with the ability to see the future in some way. This means that Anton must choose a side – he must freely choose if he is to be a part of the Night Watch or the Day Watch. The Night Watch monitor the activities of the forces of darkness, just as the Day Watch keep an eye on the forces of light.

Flash forward to present day Moscow. Anton has chosen to join the Night Watch, so he’s sent by his superiors to find a boy who is being summoned by a vampire. The vampire girl is using the Call and Anton should be able to tune in on that call and hopefully catch her before she feeds. The problem is that Anton is clearly unsuited to this work from the very beginning. He’s a bleary-eyed blunderer drunk on pig’s blood who can barely stand, much less act any kind of hero. The way that the movie is put together does a wonderful job of making you feel Anton’s disorientation. We are thrown into this situation along with him and I get the sense that were are meant to understand that his transition into a larger and darker world has not been a smooth one.

As he tracks the boy who’s being Called he encounters a mysterious woman caught ins a metaphysical vortex. It transpires that this vortex is more than just an incorporeal phenomenon – this woman is some kind of indicator of the start of an apocalypse. She is an innocent under a curse that presages the coming of the Great Other and the end of the Truce that has bound all supernatural beings for centuries.

Although this movie borrows a whole lot from other vampire films and such it really is building a whole new universe here. There are witches and vampires and seers and shape-shifters and all kinds of strange people among the Others. It’s a grimy, sad kind of underground existence for both sides of the truce. The Night Watch are operated using a power company for a front, tooling around in souped up company trucks. The Day Watch rule from the streets, from the alley ways and from the shadows. There are some fun tweaks on the vampire standards (such as a great action scene where Anton is doing battle with a vampire who is in the Gloom, and therefor invisible and can ONLY be seen in mirrors.) The Gloom is a great concept too – it’s a sort of dark dimension that the Others can go into that allows them to travel invisibly or through looking glasses. It’s a dangerous place to venture into and can destroy somebody who is ill prepared or untrained.
Where the movie begins to lose me though is in its depiction of good and evil. I think it’s intentionally ambiguous on this point. Part of the whole point of the movie (and what I’m imagining would really resonate in the Russian psyche) is that the forces of light are bureaucratic, unforgiving and officious. Yes, the forces of dark are constantly trying to break the rules, which means killing innocents and such, but it’s pretty much stated that it’s only really evil because the Night Watch have decreed it to be so. The vampires blame their sins on the oppressive regime of the Night Watch. This is kind of where I lose track of things. I can sympathise with a downtrodden group kept in check by an iron-fisted regime but at the same time the vampires that Anton does battle with are pretty clearly not nice people. He has some neighbours who are basically good folk – law abiding vampires who obey the truce and are his friends, and they’re the most sympathetic people in the movie.

I suppose that it’s kind of part of the morally ambiguous nature of the movie that nobody is really right or wrong. I can go with that. But if that’s the kind of world you’re trying to depict then perhaps you shouldn’t use terms like Good and Evil. In my mind absolutes like that don’t really apply. Are the forces of light meant to be corrupt and evil? Are the some of the forces of darkness basically good people? I think that’s what is supposed to be going on here but it’s all very muddy and confusing. As I said, it could be to do with the translation.

The visual presentation of the movie is bewildering as well, but in a good way. Director Timur Bekmambetov has a flare for edgy effects laden action and this was the film that really brought him onto the international stage. There are recurring motifs throughout the movie (the branching of blood vessels for example are echoed in the tines of lightning.) There’s a lengthy special effects shot depicting the travels of a screw torn loose from a disabled passenger jet that reminded me very much of City of Lost Children. The disorienting feel of the Gloom is marvelously captured through a variety of digital effects and camera trickery. I would hazard a guess that this movie is one of those crazy accomplishments where there is not a single shot in the whole production that doesn’t have some form of visual effect or other. No wonder this movie was hailed as Russia’s response to The Matrix.
Presented as part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
I also appreciate the effort taken to make this adaptation special for non-Russian audiences. This movie does something with the subtitles which I have never seen before. They are integrated right into the film. The voice of the Call is blood red and dissolves into the screen like blood in water. The text on the screen often wipes behind characters in the foreground or fades at different rates so that key words linger just a little longer. It drops down off the bottom of the screen as the camera pans up. It’s as though an effort has been made to make the subtitles almost part of the movie. I’m used to subtitles being a passive thing added in post, more an obstruction than anything else, so it took some time for me to get used to this new concept. In the end however I felt like it added to the whole viewing experience.

Come back next Saturday for Amanda's review and visit their blog anytime here!


Zibilee said...

I watched this movie a long time ago with my husband, and remember having mixed feelings about it. There were some really cool parts, but other aspects just didn't work for me. I would be interested in reading the book and seeing how the two compare. Thanks for your in-depth and insightful thoughts on this movie.

Marie Cloutier said...

Zibilee, Amanda's post next week will compare & contrast the book and movie. i think you would really enjoy the book. the movie IS a bit of a muddle.