One of Russia’s most famous contemporary directors made his big break in an unusual genre. Before Timur Bekmambetov directed Wanted (2008) and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer (2012), he wrote and directed the dark fantasy hit Night Watch (2004) and its sequel Day Watch (2006), two films filled with Vampires, a woman who turns into a tiger, an owl who turns into a woman and a “vortex of damnation” added for good measure. The two films were hugely successful in Russia and rank as the sixth and fourth highest grossing films in that country. (Bekmambetov’s romantic comedy The Irony of Fate 2 is the second highest grossing film on that list, trailing only 2013’s war film Stalingrad).
Bekmambetov bases his films loosely on the first two novels in Sergei Lukyanenko’s five-part series. At the beginning of Day Watch we are introduced to the world of the Others. The Others are humans who possess a wide assortment of supernatural abilities and include a range of familiar fantasy creatures like Vampires and shape-shifters. An ancient feud between the benevolent Light Others and their evil counterparts the Dark Others comes to a head in medieval times. Seeing that the battle will inevitably end in a bloody stalemate, Geser, the leader of the Light Others, brokers a truce with the Dark Other leader Zavulon. In the truce, the two sides agree to allow humans to choose which side they will join and prevents the Others from luring ordinary humans to their sides. To enforce the treaty, a group of Light Others serve on the “Night Watch” which monitors Dark Others at night. Likewise, a group of Dark Others patrol their enemies during the day as the “Day Watch.” This treaty is maintained until the beginning of the first film when Zavulon sets a plan into motion to tip the balance to Darkness.
So far, the films do not posit anything new or overly exciting but there are elements to be appreciated. First, the idea of choosing between Light and Dark, while overplayed in general, works well in the film. In most fantasy works various creatures and their tendencies are set in stone. Zombies and Werewolves are bad. Angels are good. But it’s entertaining and occasionally compelling to subvert the standards (think of Remis Lupin struggling with his Werewolf nature in Harry Potter and Nick Wright playing video games as Simon Pegg’s zombie roommate in Shaun of the Dead). Bekmambetov allows the characters, especially the central character Anton and his son Yegor, to have their own internal struggle between Light and Dark.
But while the basic framework of the story is interesting, the application yields unsatisfying results. What is perhaps most frustrating is that we are never really sure of anyone’s abilities. We are told that Yegor and Anton’s perplexing love interest Svetlana are Great Others and there are occasional references to the different levels of power possessed by each Other. Instead of expanding further, we are left hanging and confused. This may seem trivial but the fact is that fantasy films revel in backstory. Stories about superheroes, wizards, orcs, cyberpunks or alien races all benefit from well crafted origin stories. A great recent example is the first few minutes of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Jackson plunges us into the complicated and epic world of Tolkien’s fantasy and locks us in for the next three hours. Readers and viewers alike praise fiction for effective world-building whether it be Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the traditions in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter or Spider-Man learning to use his powers. We like watching a book or movie establish a set of rules and see how the story works in the rules.
Once the rules are established, they shouldn’t be broken, even if they’re made up arbitrarily. Continuing the Spider-Man analogies, no one believes that what Peter Parker does in the comics/movies can be done in real life. But we accept that in the world of the comics he is able to do these feats. But our acceptance has limits. If Spider-Man suddenly starting shooting lasers out of his eyes like Cyclops or if he could water-bend like Avatar Aang, we would throw our hands up in incredulity. Which is ironic because the main request of fantasy is that we suspend our beliefs. But in letting go of the rules of the “real world” we in turn request that the characters abide by whatever rules the story constructs. But Day Watch and Night Watch don’t establish any rules. The Others seemingly do whatever they want. The problem is that without knowing what someone can or can’t do, their feats seem unbelievable. At one point Svetlana walks into a bathroom and suddenly disappears, apparently apparating out of the restaurant. Later Anton pushes a man’s head into snow and carefully picks up the relief left behind by the man’s face and presses his own face into the relief. Somehow, this allows Anton to undergo a rapid face-switch and take on the other man’s appearance. Is this creative and interesting? Yes, and it was fun to watch. But there was absolutely zero build-up to this event and no inclination that Anton, who had previously been described as a relatively weak Other, would be able to pull off the feat. So instead of an intriguing use of Other-power, we are frustrated by the on-the-fly feeling of everyone’s abilities.
Ultimately this fast and loose handling of the characters abiliities proves too iritating to allow. Bekmambetov creates a fascinating backstory that puts an urban spin on the archetypal story of Good vs Evil and adds many elements that truly satisfy. Possibly the most innovative and enjoyable technique of the film is its handling of subtitles. Instead of filling the lower third of the screen with static text, the movie blends the text into the scene, letting the letters dance in shadows or dissolve into water once spoken. This gives the fast-paced and visually engrossing film constant on-screen activity instead of the fixed block of white letters to which we are accustomed. Another well-executed and interesting idea is the Gloom. In the films, the Gloom is described as an invisible world the Others can access at will, although they can only remain there for a short time before being consumed by the energy of the Gloom. Lukyanenko’s books explore the concept much more than the films and portray the Gloom as the area where Others draw their abilities. In the film, an Other who enters the Gloom becomes invisible to those outside the Gloom, allowing them to move uninhibited and vanish in an instant. The best visual comparison is the world Peter Jackson creates when Frodo wears Tolkien’s One Ring. Frodo and the Others both become invisible and slip into a shadowy world where they can only remain for a short time before being consumed by the power they are accessing. Visual feats like these distract from the film’s other issues, but don’t absolve the missteps.
Night Watch: 7/10. Day Watch: 6/10
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