Night Watch (Nochnoy dozor

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"Everyone step out of the the Twilight! "

Oct 22nd, 2011

Back in 2004 when the syfy channel was still known as sci fi I regularly sat down and watch any old toot they decided to bung on (usually anime or horror) in the early hours of the mornings. One weekend in between the trash TV they were screening the channel decided to show the first ten minutes of a movie only just released at the cinema.

This was a rather strange experience for me as I'd never seen anything like it before (or since). The film getting a rather unique showcase was big budget Russian flick Night Watch and oddly enough managed to convince me to give it a shot.

Before I watched the opening ten minutes I had very little idea what this film was about, I knew that it existed as it was showing at the cinema I was working at the time. When the preview was over I still had no idea what the film was about but it had a hook that really had me interested. Rather than being dubbed it was in the original Russian with subtitles (I prefer to watch foreign films this way unless it old school kung fu) that reacted to the action occurring on screen.

It was such a brilliant concept that I'm surprised that more foreign releases haven't adapted the same process. Examples of use within the film are the subs being pushed apart as a character passes through them, the words shatter as a fly smashes into them and at one point a character in a swimming pool gets a nose bleed which forms into red subtitles that wash away as the character becomes submerged. I don't mind reading subtitles but sometimes it can feel like a chore especially if you watch a lot of foreign movies in a row. This new process made reading the subs fun and they felt more natural and part of the overall experience.

Aside from this being the main draw that got me to watch the film I think it also played an important role in my overall opinion once the credits began. I remember telling everyone how fantastic the film was and I was actively anticipating the sequel. The truth is I was blindsided by the subtitles and while I constantly talked about how great they were I very rarely discussed the movie and its content. When I revisited the film on dvd I noticed a multitude of glaring flaws and truly struggled to get through it a second time.

Night Watch is based on a series of Russian novels that deal with a supernatural world. Now this is the area that I struggle to comprehend clearly as the story comes off as a convoluted mess. A lot of the story points I've gleamed from multiple viewings and research online as to what is actually taking place.

The main gist is that there are people with supernatural powers much like the x-men but not as pronounced. When a person's powers manifest they are assigned to light or dark (I'm not sure if this is the type of power they have or something like Star Wars Dark side or Lightside). Back in the past both sides were at war but a truce was made where those of the light will make a Night Watch and the dark will perform a Day Watch to maintain balance.

The whole Night and Day watch is quite a perplexing idea which I think boils down to a type of police force that keeps an eye on supernatural beings committing crimes. On top of all this a prophesy tells of a chosen one who will one day arrive joining the ranks of either the light or dark bringing them the power to finally conquer the other side.

While what I've gained from the plot above seems to make a little sense there's a whole lot more going on that manages to confuse the story even more. Theres an alternate plain of reality the characters can pass into called the gloom or twilight which is apparently dangerous as well as vortexes and portals that from the characters reactions to them tell me they're bad.

As you can tell I have no connection to the source material, I haven't read the books so I can't comment on the complexities of the tale lost in translation. What I did gleam from watching is that my confusion as to what is going on probably boils down to the style the film is presented. Coming off as very new age and experimental at the time it was released this film was the biggest budget Russian movie ever made. In trying to replicate the big budget style of Hollywood I have a feeling the clash of cultures and presentation style has come off as a mish mash that isn't satisfying to the east or western sensibilities.

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (he who went on to make Wanted) the film has a style more akin to a music video. Scenes take place with a sort of irregularity that has a glimmer of a connecting narrative. The random nature of certain sequences and introductions of new major players can be off putting especially when a lot of the material lacks very little connection with what is seemingly the main plot thread. It also doesn't help that the music choices can be quite sudden and overbearing on the scenes they play over.

With such a scattershot approach it seems a moot point to discuss the acting within the film. All appear to play their parts well and have the perfect reactions to what is set up as either good or bad moments but it's hard to invest in them as it's hard to tell who exactly are the good guys, bad guys or what significance their actions have when they lack characterisation. Konstantin Khabenskiy as Anton Gorodetsky is the only stand out as he is given a bit of backstory which allows us to form more of a bond with his character. While his emotional background is somewhat intriguing like the rest of the cast I'm not really sure what his main function and goal is within the Night Watch.

With my focus on the plot you'd be forgiven for thinking that I have a dislike for the feature and while yes it an unclear experience it still has an enjoyable effect (at least if you only watch it once) The effects the movie manages are impressive and still hold up quite well today despite the degrading nature of C.G.I in film. The action sequences are quite thrilling and downright unpredictable in nature when compared to their Hollywood counterparts.

The powers the characters display are a lot more mythical creature based as opposed to super strength or laser eyes. With vampires and shape shifters confrontations feel a little more dangerous than most characters with super powers. The more horrific setting means this has a feel that looks similar to the Underworld franchise which isn't a bad thing. No matter where you fall on the Underworld franchise there's no denying they look spectacular.

With Night Watch the lack of a real conclusion can be forgiven as it was the first of a trilogy (which seems to have all but abandoned) but I get the feeling the Night Watch movie is more a companion to the novels on which they were based. Much like the anime movie Akira it's quite possible to watch an even enjoy on some level but to understand it fully you need to be familiar with the material it's based on.

Now over the years I've discovered that there are actually two different versions of this film out there which could affect your viewing experience. The version I saw was the international cut which removes a couple of subplots with supporting characters and adds a new opening to further explain what the backstory is (its more from this that I was able to gather clues as to what was going on). This version is also the only one that has the animated subtitles. This is the version that screens frequently on Film4.

The original Russian cut is the version that was released in its homeland. This version is a tad longer and represents the directors intend release. I can advise whether this cut is better (or more coherent) as I haven't seen it. I mention this as I have recommended this film to other only to have them complain to me after purchase that the subtitles are normal. If you decide to watch this film please be aware which version you are watching as both are available on dvd.

This is a movie which I quite enjoyed the first time around but now struggle to sit through. This was one of the first times I encountered a film I liked that doesn't hold up on repeat viewings. I still recommend people giving the film a chance but only once.

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