I wasn't really sure what to expect when I sat down to watch Night Watch (original title, Nochnoi Dozor) as for some reason I only had the barest knowledge of its themes and storyline. I enjoy supernatural themes though, and I'm a great fan of the fantasy genre in general, so it was with some interest I began my exploration of this recent Russian film, released now on Region 2 DVD in a two-disc set that includes a healthy variety of special features to supplement the main offering.
The film is the start of a promised trilogy and the associated story arc is adapted from novels by Sergei Lukyanenko. The universe that Night Watch depicts is one of urban fantasy, combining fantastical elements with the real world situations (as contrasted with 'high fantasy', which tends to be based in magical made-up worlds). The main action of the film transpires in an alternate (contemporary) Moscow where 'Others' exist (this being an umbrella term for all manner of supernatural beings running the gamut from witches and wizards to vampires and shapeshifters, etc.). Others aren't precisely human, as they are born with innate supernatural powers… but ones that, by the traditional fantasy model, need to be awakened first. However, they all share the ability to look into and briefly exist within The Gloom, a strange twilight place that exists alongside the real world and one that is depicted in the film through striking visual transitions, from small swarms of mosquitoes to intricate networks of blood vessels. Regardless, the moment an Other is awakened, he or she is immediately inclined towards one of two factions: the Light or the Dark (in rough equation to Good and Evil, although in the film it becomes clear that this isn't precisely cut and dried)… and once they have chosen a side there is little chance of changing their minds later on. Some would say none, but in the commentaries it is mentioned that some side-switching has been rumoured in the past!
Speaking of the past, by the film's chronology a thousand years ago the armies of the Light and Dark came together for an epic battle. The leader of the Light (Geser) and the leader of the Dark (Zavulon), eventually realising that their forces are evenly matched, suspend the conflict in the space between heartbeats and call a truce. From that time on the two factions live in relative peace, balancing their own actions to ensure that neither shall gain the winning hand. To monitor the actions of the Dark, the Night Watch is set up and consists solely of Light Others, and conversely the Light is overseen by the Day Watch. And that's the basic set-up that serves as backstory for the main plot.
The film itself tells two tales. The first is that of Anton Gorodetsky, who back in 1992 was willing to try almost anything to get his newly-pregnant wife to return to him after she left him for another man. He visits a witch (after finding her ad in the classifieds, of course) and in the course of her incantations has his awakening as an Other. Rescued by the same team the Night Watch sent (for reasons of its own) to stop the witch from succeeding in her spell, by the time the primary action of the film begins, Anton's been with them for 12 years. His first proper assignment is to locate the victim of a vampire's 'Call' (a psychic siren's lure of sorts) and to ensure that he saves whoever it is from being killed. The first story strand covers Anton's investigation and discovery of the victim (a child called Yegor) and his protection of him from the vampires who are after him.
The second story thread is about a young doctor, Svetlana, who is suffering from a curse so severe that it has created an almighty vortex that threatens world destruction if not sorted out. Anton discovers Svetlana when he is trying to catch up with Yegor, this information is relayed to his boss (Geser, naturally) and the vortex becomes another big investigation that the officers of the Night Watch must look into and resolve before the end of the film.
Without giving away too much more of the plot, the film brings all its various sub-plots together well and although there are definitely some problems with pacing, I found myself really warming to both the tale and its setting. The world of the Others has been well thought-out and there is nothing clear-cut about the distinctions between the Light and the Dark. One of Anton's only friends, his neighbour, is actually a vampire. Anton and others in the film comment on how the Night Watch itself permits the Dark Others to carry out occasionally 'evil' acts so long as these are licensed and done 'according to the rulebook', and are left to question whether Light and Dark really does equate to Good and Evil.
I found the acting to be sufficiently up to par – the film uses a number of established Russian actors, including Konstantin Khabensky as Anton Gorodetsky and Galina Tyunina as Olga, his eventual partner in the Night Watch. There's a fairly strong level of suspension of disbelief in play with any fantasy film, and the gritty script and serious portrayal of the core characters enabled me to willingly stop looking for inconsistencies, sit back, and enjoy the tale to the fullest.
There's also a great deal to be said about the in-your-face cinematography and fast-paced directorial style. Director Timur Bekmambetov is best known for music videos, so it's no surprise that his directorial style suits the fast-paced drama and allows for lots of choppy and stylistic shots. It's not something that may appeal to everyone, but I definitely found the film visually stimulating.
So obviously I liked the film; even if it may not be perfect, it reminded me a lot of something we might see in animé – a somewhat hyperkinetic story that isn't explained as fully as we might like, which tells of epic, centuries-spanning conflicts and yet is resolved by the actions of one or two seemingly insignificant events/people. The ending is definitely that of a film with a sequel in the works and I'll absolutely be watching Day Watch when I get the opportunity.
The picture is presented in a 1.85:1 widescreen anamorphic transfer and is very clean and generally sharp as a tack. There are tonnes of weird visual effects the filmmakers have had to incorporate, including many deliberately dark or overexposed sequences, the tricky realisation of The Gloom, and (as always) a fair whack of garden-variety CGI. They all fit together admirably and none of it seems too forced. (Well, one or two scenes might be pushing their luck a bit, but for the most part, it's really amazing to watch.) Despite the large proportion of exceptionally light and dark scenes, the colours remain solid and true - allowing, naturally, for the film's intentionally-restricted gothic palette - with very few visible defects.
The first disc offers the film in both English and Russian Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes, and the second disc contains only the Russian Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (as the theatrical version has exquisite English subtitles in the print itself, more on which below). I found the surround sound well-utilised throughout, with a good use of rear speakers for ambience and for some of the more prominent effects (particularly the mosquitoes of The Gloom and the crows of Svetlana's vortex). Although this DD 5.1 presentation may not pull out all the stops, it's rock-solid and had the actual surround sound been slightly more directional I might have bumped the audio score up yet another notch.
It's worth noting here before we get to the details of the actual special features that the feature film appears on both discs in this 2-DVD set. The 'cut' (that is, the actual scenes included, their length, and the order in which they are presented) is the same for both versions and the only difference is actually in how the subtitles are displayed. The 'original' version on disc 1 is the 'international' version of the film, with edits made for the non-Russian audience. The subs on disc 1 are pretty standard, existing in an overlay layer that can be switched on or off at whim. Your options there include a Hard of Hearing subtitle track, a standard English translation with occasional comments about background noises, a more-or-less direct transcription of the feature-length audio commentary by the director, and an interesting text-only commentary track by the original author.
However the same cut of the film on the second disc includes unique, unexpectedly-cool 'in the print' English subtitles that have been quite the talking point for Night Watch since its Western cinematic release. The burned-in subs are really impressive and like nothing I've seen before. Basically, instead of providing the standard static overlay text, the filmmakers have really gone to town, letting subtitles enhance the film rather than get in the way of it. For example, when Yegor is hearing the Call of the vampire (which comes to him initially at a public swimming pool), the subtitles are made of blood and dissolve, word by word, into wisps as if carried away by the water. This was done to highlight that it is a Call of blood, not merely a mental one. Another example comes when the Night Watch are checking out some information on a computer, and the subtitles appear as if they're being typed line by line. People shouting have subtitles all in caps and dotted around the screen. The director, Timur Bekmambetov, states in his commentary that through this type of subtitles he felt like he could better control the viewer experience - of when each word would be read, where the viewer's eyes would be directed at such moments, and what the audience would have to read in order to understand the film. This works remarkably well and and I'd definitely recommend watching the second disc's version of the film unless you're very keen on the English dub. I always prefer watching DVDs in their original language, so I almost exclusively stuck to the Russian language versions of the film on both DVDs.
Both discs also include the director commentary (both audio and subtitles) and the text commentary by the novelist, Sergei Lukyanenko. I have to say I wasn't massively looking forward to the commentaries, but they proved to be something of a revelation. Timur Bekmambetov speaks good English and uses his commentary to explain how he got involved in Night Watch, the backgrounds of most of the cast, and how lucky he was to have been gifted with them… as well as some technical details. The most interesting pieces of information for me were some of the background motivations of characters which weren't examined too deeply in the actual script and also his insights into modern Russian culture that helped to point out why certain scenes would reverberate for the native audience – something I'd otherwise have no real way of discovering for myself.
The author, Sergei Lukyanenko, provides more useful insights into motivations and backstories. He's also very good at pointing out changes from his novel – and not in any bitter way; he mostly points them out factually. For example, Anton wasn't the one who visited the witch in the novel, though it fits in quite well with the overall storyline here. The text commentary is fitted around normal subtitles well, although reading both on first viewing might prove a little much, so I'd recommend a separate sitting for the commentary.
On a note unrelated to Night Watch itself, disc 1 also includes a handful of trailers promoting the acclaimed 'animated comic book' production Broken Saints.
Disc 2 has the lion's share of the non-commentary special features, the most meaty which is a 39-minute featurette called The Making of Night Watch. This extra is presented entirely in the Russian language, with optional English subtitles. It includes the normal fare for such productions, including behind-the-scenes footage and studio interviews with cast and crew. The material is reasonably engaging, although it covers much of the same ground as the audio commentary though not in as much depth. One of the most interesting aspects is the background concept for Night Watch, discussing how it draws on themes familiar to Russians both from modernity as well as from Slavic mythology.
There are seven deleted scenes with optional commentary from the film's director. Two of these have burned-in English subtitles, but the rest don't. There is an option of watching the scenes in Russian audio, English dub or with the commentary track running. The segments are a mixture of rough cuts and actual finished scenes (ones that have gone through post-production) which were subsequently trimmed for the final release and which thus sport good video quality and surround sound. Scenes vary in length from about 45 seconds to almost 8 minutes each, and while there are 3 subtitles tracks available to choose from manually in this section, only the first two actually seem to do anything: the first is a straight English sub (with occasional HoH-style ambient audio notes) and - always welcome - the second sub is a direct transcription of the director's commentary track. Whilst there is nothing really groundbreaking about these deleted and alternate/extended scenes, it's nice to have them included for us to peer at. Generally I think the film stands fine on its own without them, although the director in his commentary seems to have a number of regrets about having left them on the cutting room floor.
There are four other featurettes, each running for around 3.5 minutes or just over 5 minutes in length. The first of these shorter sections is about 'Characters, Story and Subtitles' and is pretty much as expected – fine but not really important if you've been paying attention to the commentaries. The same can be said of the 'Characters and Themes' featurette. But if you don't have the time for a full-out commentary, these snippets of information are presented more manageably. (And also they're in English, as are the remaining two featurettes, so you won't be forced to read subtitles if you'd rather not.) The final pair are the 'Day Watch Preview' (which they seem to use to discuss Night Watch quite a bit) and the 'Night Watch Trilogy' featurette, both of which are entirely predictable promotional extras and often feature the same exact clips from Day Watch (which has already been released in Russian cinemas).
The final extras on the second disc are the galleries. The first is the 19 images that make up the poster gallery, with various takes on the advertising artwork for the film. The second is the comic book still gallery which runs for just under 9 minutes and consists of various panels from the actual Russian comic book on which the film is based, presented in automatic slideshow format and accompanied by atmospheric music.
Night Watch is an urban fantasy film dealing with supernatural beings engaged in an age-long conflict, and it centres around a few key players. Not everything is explained fully and there are a few pacing problems, but throughout everything is very stylish and atmospheric. I really enjoyed watching Night Watch and would certainly recommend it, with the provisos made above. If anything, the film suffers from the standard pitfall of any 'first in a series' production… it has to set-up the entire universe and core characters which will then be drawn upon in sequels, and as such comes across as slightly more cumbersome than would otherwise be the case. The DVD package is also a little confusing because of the same cut on the film being on both discs, but the commentaries really do add to one's appreciation of the film and the featurettes also add something of interest.