Night Watch, the first film in a fantasy trilogy directed by Timur Bekmambetov, opens with nothing less than an epic medieval battle between the forces of good and evil. As the battle draws on, the two sides realise they are evenly matched, and the battle will never end without mutual annihilation. They settle into an uneasy truce, and the forces of good and evil form the Night Watch and the Day Watch, to enforce the pact on both sides. In present-day Moscow, Anton Gorodetsky is thrown into this Cold War standoff as a reluctant participant on the side of good. Things are beginning to change, and signs point to the coming of the long-prophecised Chosen One, who will tip the balance.
Based on Sergey Lukyanenko's bestselling novel, Night Watch is an inventive reworking and extension of the vampire mythos. Garlic and crosses don't get a look in; these vampires still drink blood, but they also shapeshift into exotic forms and foretell the future. The Others, as they are known, choose whether to join the forces of light or dark, and the difference between the two sides is less clear-cut that it seems.
This potentially interesting premise is largely wasted, however, as Bekmambetov attempts to cram too many ideas into one film and does not manage to fully explore them all. For example, the Others can step into a twilight realm known as The Gloom, which is used as little more than an excuse for some exciting special effects, and seems to take on different properties according to the needs of the story at the time. Plot-wise, meanwhile, the film is straightforward and occasionally unoriginal. The predicted Chosen One whose appearance presages the final battle is an overused cliche. The pacing is uneven, something which is particularly apparent at the ending; characters move into holding patterns until it's time for the hero to show up and move the story forward. The ending does a decent job of tying up some plot threads, but many are left dangling for the next part of the trilogy.
However, the film rises above the confusing mythos and linear plotting through strong characterization, acting, and sheer visual flair. Anton is an unusual protagonist, neither your standard hero rising to the challenge nor a cliched anti-hero, and is portrayed excellently by Konstantin Khamensky. Though he has apparently chosen the side of light and joined the Night Watch, Anton is in fact caught between the two sides. Similarily impressive are the heads of the rival factions: Victor Verhzbitsky as Zebulon, the cooly menacing leader of the Day Watch, while Vladimir Menshov as Geser, leader of the Night Watch, conveys the world-weariness of a man who has fought to maintain the status quo for thousands of years. The film also has a dark and cynical sense of humour, which brings relief from the depressing tone.
Visually the film is a complex mishmash of styles but manages to work. The flashy camerawork, editing and supernatural effects contrast with the grim backdrop of Moscow, and the scenes of violence are viscerally horrific and painful to watch. Bekmambetov even manages to fit in a short and effective animated sequence. The visual effects are of a high standard throughout, giving no hint of the meagre budget, and are overused only in a confusing final sequence. The main visual flaw is an attempt to provide exciting subtitles for the foreign audience, which change colour and size according to the script, and distract from, rather than enhance, the film.
Night Watch is a brave and mostly successful attempt at another reimagining of the vampire myth, hampered by an overemphasis on visual style above coherent plotting, and an excess of set-up in place of pay-off. The tired plot elements are given enough of an original spin to keep things interesting; hopefully the later installments of the trilogy will fix the flaws and provide a thrilling conclusion to the story.
Liz Batty is a postgraduate student living in London.