A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 246 – Night Watch

Night Watch – November 1st, 2010

A few years ago when we went to visit family in California I bought the book this movie is based on. I’d brought several books with me for the flight there and back, but as I might have mentioned I am usually a very fast reader and I whipped through the books I’d brought. And no, they weren’t children’s novels. They were fairly heavy books, actually, but by the time we landed in San Francisco I’d finished all but one, and that one only had a few chapters left. So we hit a book store before we headed home two weeks later and I bought this book because it was thick and Russian and dense and I figured it would last me. Boy was I right. It lasted me so well it’s still unfinished. I found it far too dense for an airplane flight and ended up writing or sleeping for much of the flight instead. I feel somewhat ashamed of this. Having seen this now, perhaps I will go back and pick up the book and finish it.

The thing is, it really is a dense story. I only got through a couple of chapters of the book and it was a few years ago now, but I remember it okay. Not perfectly, but well enough to have the impression that while the movie does set up the world and story fairly well the book went into a hell of a lot more detail. I’m not really comparing the book to Tolkien, but when looking at the transition from book to movie there had to be a similar truncation of the world building. It had to be done in a visual manner that would condense all of the pages and pages of details in the book into a few minutes of scenes on a screen. That’s tricky. It ends up meaning that the background between the Light and the Dark is explained in an expository prologue and the whole major plot with a woman who’s been cursed, bringing down a vortex – not to mention the meaning of the vortex itself – is also explained through some expository dialogue and kind of glossed over. Vortex = bad. Got it. But it’s expressed much more eloquently in the book if I recall correctly. I definitely found myself thinking back to what I could recall of the book to fill in my understanding of the scale of the danger here.

It’s not that the movie does any of this stuff poorly. It’s that there’s just so very much to pack into one movie and some bits are going to get lost. As I’ve said, things that work on a page don’t necessarily work on a screen. And really, I was pleased by the world-building work done in this movie. Anton, the main character, gets some background and we’re really introduced with the modern Night Watch and his personal conflicts and troubles through a job he goes on. He’s got a drinking problem, both with alcohol and blood. He’s working for the Light side of things, but he’s friendly with a few vampires and seems to be a little too close to them for comfort. He gets himself into trouble while dealing with two vampires who’ve used their powers to lure an innocent boy to them to feed on and while looking for them he encountered a woman with a vortex forming above her. And a vortex is a bad thing indeed, dooming all of those around her. So we’ve got the vampires and we’ve got the vortex and there’s definitely something deeper going on in the world that the movie has built. The whole world is put together in such a way that you know that the Truce between Light and Dark is a fragile thing indeed, with both sides pushing and testing and using loopholes. It’s implied that the Dark is chafing against the rules imposed by the Light and the Light may perhaps be a little hypocritical at times. Nothing is clear cut.

The whole Light and Dark thing isn’t a new concept. One of my favorite series of books when I was a child (and still to this day) are Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising books. In those books the Light is clearly very good. It’s a simple thing. The Light is good and does good things and the Dark is bad and does bad things. Sometimes people in the Light make mistakes, but they’re rare and for the most part it’s all very easy to tell one from the other. The world of this movie has much fuzzier lines. Yes, there is one team and there is another, and they have different general directions they’re pointing in. But it’s harder to draw clean lines between them at times. It’s a lot dirtier and grittier, as befits a more realistic world. I don’t find it at all difficult to imagine why someone would choose to go with the Dark in this world. After all, the Light isn’t necessarily so appealing all the time.

The specific plot of the movie is kind of complex. It’s not that it’s this intricate spiderweb of a story, but it relies heavily on the world it takes place in and on things that I’d have to make asides to explain. Suffice it to say, there’s a big climactic battle between the Light and the Dark coming, and Anton is closely connected to a key figure in that battle. But Anton himself is a flawed figure, and so his actions can have devastating consequences. And the movie handles him in a wonderfully close way. He’s far from perfect. His apartment is filthy, he’s a mess much of the time, he sort of seems to have fallen into the job he has. There’s the blood issue. The vortex plot and the vampire plot run together for much of the movie, back and forth. But in the end it’s a good vs. evil plot. I know I heard this in a creative writing class – that there are two stories: good vs. evil and a stranger comes to town – but who said it? I have no idea. Still, it holds true here. Good vs. evil. But here it’s a messy battle with a messy hero and a messy visual presentation.

I mean that in a good way. The visuals are frantic in places, with awkward camera angles and quick pans and zooms and things frozen in time. The world Anton and his fellows (the Others, both Light and Dark) inhabit is one where the rules that apply to the rest of us don’t always exist. So the visual style seems to seek to capture that, and in my opinion it works. It’s disorienting and scattered, but it fits both the world and Anton himself. The one thing I’d criticize visually is the whole medieval knight theme that gets pulled out from the opening prologue and superimposed over the big battle at the end. It felt a little forced to me in a movie where the odd visuals didn’t otherwise feel out of place.

Other than that and the frustrating glossing over of Olga, I really felt the movie did a good job with the world of the story and then placing the story into it. It’s not an easy thing to take a dense and well-built background and put it on film in a concise manner that still feels rich, but this movie does it. I’m looking forward to the sequel now, and I’m definitely going to go finish the book.

Addendum: After watching Day Watch and finishing the books I was already in the middle of I went and found my copy of Night Watch and finished reading it. I was a little surprised at how quickly it went, given my recollections of it being somewhat dense and slow before. But once I got past the initial chapters it sucked me right in. It was fascinating to read through the book and see exactly what had been altered for the movies. Of course one of the major changes is that the second and third stories from the book were combined for the second movie, but also some characters were brought forward, given bigger roles. Others were pushed back. And for all that the movie is very much set in Russia and has a wonderful sense of place, I truly felt like the book set the stage better. Watching the movie, I enjoyed it and that was that. Reading the book I wanted to know more about Russian history and all of the events referenced as things a reader should just know. The movies, to be honest, are plotted more tightly at the end. But the book is more expansive. And it has more Olga, and that’s just plain awesome.

November 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)

November 1, 2010

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.

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.

Watching this again tonight I am tempted to try reading the book (though if the movie is dense and confusing I’m sure the book is even more so.) I’m also really looking forward now to re-visiting this world and trying to understand it better when we review Day Watch on Wednesday.

November 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment