Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)

Yegor, the young boy, falls backward in the dark crimson Gloom, his eyes leaving a cloudy red trail.

Yegor succumbs to the Gloom.

For those of you not familiar with it, Night Watch is the first of a Russian “epic horror trilogy” or “epic fantasy trilogy”, depending on which ads you read. Just check out the trailer. Then go see it, because it’s wild, original, and great.

In a lot of ways, Night Watch is the a natural progression from films like The Matrix with its stylized time-bending shots, and modern videos with their fast-paced rapid cutting that movie goers are now used to. Every inch of the film is packed with stylized cuts, jarring juxtapositions, and wild visual effects. But through it all, Night Watch remains its own world and a self-contained tale. And that’s what makes it work.

A doll, in the form of a little girl with a basket from the waist up, sprouts mean spider's legs and lifts itself up from the shelf it sits on.

Another unexplained but wonderful element of the film’s world.

The world of Night Watch is one that co-mingles with the normal world, but is inherently disconnected from it because only the Others, who are both Light and Dark, can see each other when they walk in the Gloom. The Gloom is an interesting twist on an oft-used fantasy trope: the dark shadow world that lies beneath which allows people to move through solid objects, be invisible, use various powers. However, there are enough unique details and features to make it compelling (it seems to be a living entity and not altogether friendly) and the first movie only gives you a taste of it. Of course, there’s a big battle raging between Good and Evil and it’s really old, and there’s a Balance, etc., etc. but that’s not why I enjoyed Night Watch. Those structural pieces are almost obligatory. It’s the details of the world, and probably the Russian perspective that made whole thing work so well for me. The fundamental parts are very typical, but the way they’re played kept me off balance just enough to keep me engaged and loving the ride. But this off-balance feeling seems to throw a lot of people.

Two warriors in helmets each whisper from either side into the ears of a man who appears to be in pain or afraid.

The forces of Light and Dark form a truce to end a never-ceasing battle.

This feeling of off-kilter rawness is carried through the whole film in a way that most movies of this sort just don’t seem to pull off. The protagonist of Night Watch, Anton Gorodetsky, when we first see him as part of the Night Watch, is a wreck and a man tortured by past deeds and compelled to fight for the side of Light. He, quite literally, becomes a stumbling drunk in order to track a human boy under the spell of a vampiric Other. And he’s not necessarily a great crusader or hidden powerhouse. Throughout the film, he puts himself in jeopardy that feels real. Even what appears to be a typical encounter with a vampire results in a brutal, graceless fight that leaves Anton in bloody shambles. It’s this kind of un-slickness that helps set Night Watch apart from many. You get the sense that nothing’s clean and easy for them because you are flung into it yourself. The film is much more about impression and clarity, but I never felt lost, only flooded with sensation.

Anton, not looking so good and with sunglasses on, holds himself up with both arms while riding the subway.

The first mission of Anton’s we witness reveals how difficult the work of the Night Watch is for him. He also, like Corey Hart, wears his sunglasses at night.

Many people expressed great confusion about the plot, mainly because, I believe, they want to understand everything that’s going on all the time and the movie is usually throwing about ten different bizarre things at you at once. The thing is, I never had any trouble picking out the key elements and the mood-setting ones. There’s a fair amount of suspension of disbelief and patience necessary to enjoy the movie. In a way, you have to want a crazy, bustling, disorienting, raw fantasy tale full of mystery and half-revelations, or you’ll just end up not seeing the forest for the trees.

Unfortunately, some of this intensity and disorientation created a few weird discrepancies and dangling plot elements. I admit that this will probably really bother some people, but I just looked past it at all the great stuff happening elsewhere. I can see how the whole commuter jet and power plant subplots will be too much for some to get past. However, I’d argue that the story warrants some of this sudden discarding. You’ll have to judge for yourself.

Crows swoop down from a rooftop, literally springing forth from the debris.

Crows fly about the city and are continually present, heralding “a vortex”. This vortex is one of the more hazily defined subplots.

On top of all this visual activity, a rarely-seen feature was incorporated into the subtitled release. The subtitles themselves subtly dance and move with the conversations, the characters, and the mood. It’s something you rarely see, probably because it’s more expensive and some would argue it intrudes on the purity of the film. However, it was clearly overseen by the team who made the film, and they did a superb job of re-injecting some of the emotion and immersion that’s lost when you’re forced to read subtitles. When the DVD comes out, I’ll put some shots up here for you to check out (which you shouldn’t have to, because you’re going to see it now, right?). And with a movie this big overseas, the DVD will soon follow. According to…something I read – I can’t remember what – Nochnoi Dozor (it’s Russian name) was not only one of the most expensive Russian films ever, it shattered box office records in Russia for any film. Then, Dnevnoy Dozor (Day Watch), blew that record right out of the water. I have to say, I’m excited. And the final installment is in production now, I believe. Hopefully, the American release does proportionally well for a subtitled fantasy flick.

A woman stares downward as wind whips her hair into a whirling column on the subway.

Not the typical behavior of your average woman on the subway.

I haven’t gone into too much detail because there’s just too much to give, as each scene bursts with fantastic elements and lush detail. Critics are giving more plot points in some of their reviews, and if you want to know more, check them out. I plan on seeing it again in the theatre and I bet I’ll have even more insight by then. But when it gets down to it, Night Watch is great and a lot of fun. I think the world that Sergei Lukyanenko created in his books will just get more and more fascinating and thrilling as we get deeper into the trilogy, and Timur Bekmambetov has done a really great job giving it all a unique punch on screen. And if you don’t like it, you should get back to stamp collecting and being a priss.

A smiling old woman in a red sweater swings her outstretched hands towards each other as two others reach for them.

This scene in a witch’s apartment is proof of the director’s skill. I loved every crazy minute of it.

MPAA Review: Strong violence, disturbing images and language.
Ad Exec Reviews: All That Stands Between Light And Darkness Is The Night Watch.

One reply on “Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)

  1. Great news! My Russian coworker informs me that Day Watch (which he can watch because he can understand Russian) is much better than Night Watch. It is “the kind of movie you can watch over and over” and that all of the character relationships not touched on in the first movie are fully addressed in the second. Along with more, better effects and more use of magic, which is cool.

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