August 15, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: Night Watch

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Night Watch (2004)
Written by Timur Bekmambetov and Laeta Kalogridis, based on the original novel by Sergei Lukyanenko
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

It's very true, I think, the idea that as we become a global society more and more, we are also developing a "global culture" on top of our various national ones, or at least are acknowledging more and more that there are certain things about the arts that seemingly go over well among a certain audience no matter where on the planet they are. And as we've all seen, as with anything in the arts, these shared elements can sometimes be highly intelligent in nature (such as the growing global influence of such groups as the BBC, Boing Boing and McSweeney's), as well as the normal idiocy we're used to when it comes to this subject, such as the growing reliance by Hollywood on foreign markets in order to turn a profit on dumbed-down empty action crap.

Night Watch, the movie

And now into this fray comes a trio of new high-budget science-fiction films from the post-Soviet Russia, starting with Night Watch, released in its native land to great fanfare in 2004 but not in America until 2006 (and with its sequel, Day Watch, having just finished its run in American theatres a few months before this essay was written). And the reason it was so celebrated in its motherland is that this happens to be the very first Russian film since the collapse of the Soviet Union to be able to hold its own against any other Hollywood sci-fi actioner; the first to have a budget in the tens of millions, the first to employ sophisticated computer graphics and other special effects. And indeed, after watching it myself now, I can confirm that the film actually can hold its own against any other semi-crappy Matrix knockoff that we in the West have had to endure over the last decade, and in fact is better than most when it comes to certain subjects (such as innovative use of computer effects, a subject where this film really shines at points). But then that leads one to an intriguing question -- should we be applauding Russia's film industry for starting to get in step with our modern global times, and starting to release movies indistinguishable from any other nation's film industry? Or should we be disappointed by this, by the fact that the dumbification of the arts is now starting to bleed into all national cultures? Should we be pining instead for the days when Russian films were uniquely odd experiences unto themselves, unable to be mistaken for anything else but a Russian film?

Night Watch, the movie

The brainchild of genre fan and former ad executive Timur Bekmambetov, based on a series of popular novels by Sergei Lukyanenko, Night Watch starts with a premise that will be familiar to any fan of goofy big-budget sci-fi epics, and especially the exquisite guilty pleasure which is Highlander; it seems in fact that there are two secret grand armies on Earth that most of us know nothing about, running around and having their battles within our midst, both of the groups going back nearly to the dawn of humanity itself, one dedicated to good and one to evil. ("Dere cahn bee onlie WAHN!" Oops, sorry.) And long ago, you see, these armies realized that they were completely and utterly evenly matched, meaning that their ongoing war was eventually going to cause the destruction of the entire human race without there ever being a winner; and that's why the leader of the good army ended up brokering a truce with the leader of the bad army, allowing for both sides to uneasily co-exist, under the promise that neither side will try to actively recruit new initiates but rather let them voluntarily choose sides themselves, after coming into whatever specialized "power" (usually during young adulthood) that marks them as a supernatural warrior to begin with.

Night Watch, the movie

To enforce the peace, then, each side has their own police force of sorts; the good guys, for example, have the "Night Watch," which keeps tabs on the evil people (mostly vampires) at night when they go about their business; while the evil side has their "Day Watch" which does the same thing but in the opposite direction. And it's this story that we mostly follow in the movie; the story of Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky), that is, one of these evil-watching policemen, whose particular power happens to be the ability to see into the minds of others, but only by adopting their habits such as drinking blood. Yeah, I know, it doesn't make much sense, I know; and this is an early and consistent problem in Night Watch, in fact, that there are lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of details that make absolutely no narrative or logical sense when examined in any detail, other than the fairly obvious sense of, "Dude, I wanted an excuse to shoot a scene at a butcher shop! DUDE!"

Night Watch, the movie

In fact, this movie is chock full of so-called "dude logic" from beginning to end; and by that, I mean any cinematic detail that can only be rationalized by imagining two stoned undergraduates on a couch in the middle of the night, shouting, "Dude, did you see that shot? Dude, DUDE!" and then giving each other high-fives. And I should confess, I'm not exactly a hater of dude logic, and do in fact think that it has its proper time and place when it comes to the viewing habits of any intelligent filmgoer; and even better, of course, when that dude logic is as smart as it possibly gets, for example like in the case of the aforementioned The Matrix, which is why every other movie like this since then inevitably gets compared to it. But The Matrix is The Matrix precisely because it's so much better than most of these other projects; because it sews together such an airtight internal logic to it all, where you're left at the end with not a single "Yeah, but what about..." and "Yeah, right, I'm so sure that..." and "Dude, this blows, I'm going to go microwave a burrito, just call me if there's any more kung-fu." (And note, by the way, that this applies only to the original Matrix; its own two sequels inspire plenty of comments like the above when watched.)

Night Watch, the movie

I like to compare the situation to that of, say, Modernist architecture in the 1950s; how there is only the most subtle of differences between a cutting-edge architect like Mies van der Rohe and just some slumlord who wants to slap up a featureless steel box as quickly and cheaply as humanly possible. Believe it or not, there actually is a discernible difference between the two buildings that are eventually created from these two situations; it's just that most people can't tell that difference, and most slumlords don't want to spend the extra money and time it takes to build in that subtle difference that most people don't notice anyway. And thus it is that Modernism was directly responsible for a national proliferation of ugly, drab, featureless steel boxes, despite the original Modernist creations being truly exceptional works of art; and thus as well is The Matrix responsible for an entire decade now of semi-crappy big-budget sci-fi epics about secret worlds hidden among us in plain sight, even though The Matrix itself was so good that you can't just simply wish it was never made.

Night Watch, the movie

Now, all that said, Night Watch definitely gets better as it progresses; and especially after the first half-hour, when Bekmambetov apparently finally realized that he didn't have to cram in an effects shot every other second in order to get Western audiences to take an interest. Because that's the other major flaw of the movie, the one that it is sometimes less guilty of and sometimes more; of having an inferiority complex, that is, of having that whiff of desperation one often gets from a person trying too hard to impress. There are huge sections of Night Watch, frankly, where it feels like the team behind it doesn't have even a basic handle over what their audience wants; where the predominant thinking seems to have been, "Take everything you've ever seen in an American action movie, then double it because we need to get those people's attention. No, wait, triple it, even better!" Once Bekmambetov lets go of this anxiety, like I said, he's much more able to simply deliver a movie that captivates; to understand, for example, how exotic and foreign the mere sight of a blue-collar Russian apartment is to Westerners in the first place, and that you don't necessarily need exploding vampires and techno-synched sword fights and pulsing semi-transluscent faces within these apartments to make them more exotic and foreign than they already are.

Night Watch, the movie

In fact, that's the advice I would give Bekmambetov going into his third movie, if he were to happen to catch this review; to simply relax a little, to believe in himself as a competent filmmaker who deserves a global audience (because he legitimately is, and he legitimately does), instead of someone who needs to "out-Americanize" most American movies in order to have even a chance of American-style fame and fortune. Like I said, we're living in an age where such arbitrary distinctions as national borders are becoming less important by the day when it comes to appreciation of the arts; where as an artist, if you can gain access to the mere minimum of modern technological equipment, a growing audience is out there ready to accept your project in the same terms as a project from anywhere else. Although a bit silly at times, and definitely not as good as the genre gets at its best, I'm giving Night Watch a thumbs-up, as well as looking forward to the other two films in this trilogy. Here's hoping that Bekmambetov is starting to realize just how many people like me there are around the planet right now, and how he doesn't have to visually overwhelm us every second in order to get us to watch in the first place.

Out of 10:
Writing: 5.3
Acting: 5.5
Directing: 5.8
Cinematography: 8.4
Overall: 6.8, or 7.8 for science-fiction fans

Random notes:
--Something I hadn't thought of until going online: Many reviewers have compared the visual look of this film to the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, Delicatessen, City of Lost Children), a sentiment with which I would have to agree; he's yet another European filmmaker with Hollywood aspirations, who throws literally the entire kitchen sink of special effects into his idiosyncratic movies, sometimes to great annoyance and sometimes to great delight.

--In the "International" version of the film, at a certain point one of the characters is seen watching the American TV show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." This was deliberately inserted into the Western version; the original Russian version instead shows a scene from a popular children's show there, specifically an episode where that show's heroes battle a group of vampires.

--Over 16 Russian effects studios were employed during the making of this film, comprising pretty much the entire Russian effects industry. Because there are 11 time zones in Russia, this made post-production for the film as difficult as having an international team would've.

--And finally, I guess it goes without saying that this is now the largest-grossing Russian film in history. Duh. And that of course brought it instant scorn from the pun-loving Russian online subculture known as Padonki (think fanboys but smarter), who promptly renamed the film "Night Shame" for its unabashed pandering to Western audiences. (Actually, the pun works much better in the original Russian -- "Nochnoy Dozor" versus "Nochnoy Pozor.")

Best viewed: Shall we all say it together? With a couchful of stoned undergraduates in the middle of the night, over a big heaping plate of microwaved burritos. DUDE!

Next on my queue list: Equilibrium, a 2002 low-budget science-fiction thriller I know so little about, I've forgotten why I put it on my queue list to begin with. Hmm, this should be interesting!

Read even more about Night Watch: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:36 AM, August 15, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |