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.

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November 1, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , ,

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