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Film review ***: Even Vampires Think Abortion is Wrong

Russian Sci-fi Movie ...Night Watch... Muddies the Waters of Good vs. Evil

By Beckett W. Sterner

Night Watch

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

Written by Sergei Lukyanenko
and Timur Bekmambetov

Starring Konstantin Khabensky
and Vladimir Menshov

Rated R

Imagine “The Matrix,” but from a Russian perspective. Instead of a computer virtual reality, “Night Watch” takes a fantasy twist and endows some humans, called Others, with supernatural abilities that transform them into vampires, sorcerers and more. When humans discover these abilities within themselves, they must choose to join either the “light” or “dark” forces. Life is not so simple as good and evil, however, because the two forces police each other under the agreement of an ancient truce. The film takes its name from the forces of light — the Night Watch — who ensure that the dark Others do not break the rules of the truce. The Night Watch is balanced by the Day Watch, who do the same, monitoring the light Others.

As the highest grossing film in post-Soviet Russia, “Night Watch” is not only a very good action movie but also an interesting reflection of the Russian state of mind. No one is pure in the movie, especially the protagonists, and the word “police” is taken as a synonym for well-regulated corruption. It’s impossible to demonize the dark Others as pure evil, because they’re just as committed to the same rules as the light forces, so if they win it’s because they were that much smarter. These rules define a moral world for both light and dark, one in which the dark can be equally justified in reproaching the light for its errors. The world seems confined within the dirtiness of the city, and while personal relationships are still genuine, they are constantly tested under the twisting strain of the truce.

Parts of the movie feel quite familiar, however, and one shouldn’t take “Night Watch” as something radically different than standard Hollywood fare. The plot relies on that familiar device of disrupting a well-established equilibrium with the arrival of someone new — the “Great One” — who breaks all the rules. According to prophecy, the Great One will set in motion a final Armageddon between the light and dark Others. Thus while the film is still noticeably foreign (it has English subtitles for the most part), its sharp sense of humor transfers well, and the overall experience is that of Hollywood with a dark Russian twist.

Visually, the film is intense to watch, with a touch of sci-fi grotesque in its special effects. There are very few moments when the camera is still, and the battles become anxious, frenetic struggles for power as the director, Timur Bekmambetov, creates rapid-cut collages of the passion and sufferings of light and dark. Much of the film’s otherworldly gloom and edginess follow from its superbly-integrated special effects, which rise above the “big explosions” genre to define the mood of the characters’ environment.

Perhaps the most enjoyable effect, though, was how the English subtitles were almost brought inside the world of the movie — words glowed red with blood, became hidden behind walls, and added emphasis to the character’s emotions. This small touch alone enhances one’s engagement as an English-speaker, because the language barrier itself is taken as yet another mode of expression.

The best part of all is that “Night Watch,” which opened in July 2004 in Russia, is the first of a trilogy based on the sci-fi novels by Sergei Lukyanenko (the others are Day Watch and Dusk Watch). So if you’ve been missing your action trilogies now that “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “The Matrix” have all run to completion, “Night Watch” will give you an excellent fix with a taste of the exotic. I’d lay odds on this being one of the best action films to open in the U.S. this year.