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Movie Review: Nochnoi Dozor (Nightwatch)

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NightwatchFrom Russia with love comes a new fantasy epic of good versus evil. Nightwatch, a flawed yet engaging and, at times, even thrilling film, pits the Others of Light against the Others of Dark, with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance.

A long time ago, the magically gifted Others (not to be confused with the Others from Lost, or the Others from The Others) met on a bridge to fight. The Light and the Dark were evenly matched, so the leaders called a truce that has lasted to the present day. Some of the warriors of Light join the Nightwatch, which monitors the dark for violations of the truce. The Dark warriors have their Daywatch, which monitors the Light for the same violations.

Twelve years ago, one Anton Gorodetsky, played by Konstantin Khabensky, tried to hire a witch to get back his estranged wife, who had left him for another man. The witch informed him she was pregnant with a child that was not his and, unless the child was killed, she would forever be drawn away from him. Anton consents to the feticide and agrees to take the sin upon himself, but the ceremony is interrupted by the Nightwatch, who arrest the witch. They are surprised to discover, however, that they are in a sort of limbo dimension called The Gloom. Anton can see them. This results in Anton discovering that he is an Other and he chooses the Light.

In the present day, Anton is given the task of tracking down a child who is being illegally called by Dark Others. This calling is a special power that some Others have over humans, and the child is wandering through Moscow trying to get to the source. Anton must find him and stop the process, which has not been licensed. In the process of trying to find the child, Anton makes a startling discovery, which he cannot at first understand, but which is of grave importance for the Others on both sides.

Nightwatch, called Nochnoi Dozor in Russian, was the biggest blockbuster hit of all time in its native country. Based on a novel of the same name, it possesses a compelling story — going back to the Greek classics for some ideas for compelling plot points — and a very imaginative world. It suffers where many Russian films throughout history have suffered, at least in my opinion: it is a bit primitive.

Going as far back as Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, Russian films have always struck me as being behind the times both in terms of their technical and artistic merits (with the honorable exception of Mikhail Kalatozov’s Cranes Are Flying). This film is no exception, though ultimately it manages to survive its primitiveness. There are certain scenes, thankfully not too many, which come dangerously close to seeming like a home video but with film quality picture.

Right from the start, as Anton approaches the witch’s apartment, there is something ordinary about the look of the film. Contrast it with the scene in Se7en where the two detectives pay a visit to a suspect in a rundown apartment building: the lighting is more appropriate, the location better serves the movie, and Fincher’s camera gets the most out of the scene. Or contrast it with a very similar scene in The Matrix, which like Se7en manages to get it right with a scene with similar technical and artistic demands.

In addition to the B-quality that the picture has at times, there are some aspects of the story that are a bit silly. Though the world is well detailed, there are things that might have been omitted. For instance, a couple of the Nightwatch prowl the city streets in an oversized yellow van which, when the time comes for rapid travel, shoots fire out its backside. In a movie which strives for a very Matrix-like feel, the comic effect of this van is toxic.

The only other real complaint I had was the nature of the camerawork itself. Many comparisons have been drawn between this movie and The Matrix, and I think there is some good reason for this. Much of the tricky camera work is similar, but whereas in the Wachowski Brothers’ masterpiece the camera work at all times aids in the telling of the story, in Nightwatch it occasionally gets in the way. There are times when the camera is tricky just for the sake of being tricky.

But it would be a mistake to make too much of the flaws and not dwell on what the filmmakers got right. The story is both imaginative and emotionally compelling. When the camera is not busy being too cutesy, the director manages to impart a style that works. The actors are talented, if not always well chosen for their roles, and the great effort put in to setting up the story does pay off with a climax that really satisfies. It is one of those endings where all the various parts come together in a whirlwind of drama and tension and finally, when all is said and done, one is left wanting the sequel, which has already come out in Russia.

Bravo to the filmmakers who have given us a film rich in fantasy and imagination, and moderately slick in execution too. Though inferior to The Matrix, or to Star Wars: A New Hope, two shining examples of movies that invented entirely new worlds to tell their stories, it is still good and a welcome change from the eight or nine same scripts that come out year after year. See it before it’s too late.

The Upside:
Great imagination and generally solid execution. The story leaves you wanting more.
The Downside:
Some of the locations could have been better chosen to enhance the feel of the film. Some of the details struck me as silly. At times the camera work is too complicated for its own good.
On the Side:

The sequel to this film, Daywatch, is already playing in Russia, and the third and final chapter, Duskwatch, is in the works.

Breaking Down the Film:
The Story: A-
The Acting: B
Behind the Scenes: B-
Final Grade: B+

Film Stats:
Starring: Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov, Mariya Poroshina
Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov
Writing Credits: Timur Bekmambetov (screenplay), Laeta Kalogridis (screenplay), Sergei Lukyanenko (novel)
Release Date: February 17, 2006 (limited)
Country: Russia
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, disturbing images and language.
Run Time: 114 min.
Studio: Fox Searchlight

By Matthew Alexander, a Staff Writer for Film School Rejects.

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