I’ll give Night Watch this: the special effects are great, the premise is interesting, and for a Russian production, it’s impressive. These don’t change the fact that it’s a deeply flawed, often confusing film.
There are two clans of magical people (called the Others) that live among us: those aligned with the light and those with the dark. At war for ages, a truce is now in effect thanks to Geser (Vladimir Menshov), the leader of the light. The forces of Light now police over both sides at night (the night watch) while the forces of Darkness, led by Zavulon (Viktor Verzhbitsky) enforce the law during daytime (day watch). A prophecy has foretold a special being who will tip the balance between the two clans. Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky), a night watchman, is investigating a woman cursed with a spell so vicious it threatens to destroy the world. Unless the Nightwatch and Daywatch departments can figure out who put this curse on her and get rid of it, it’s doomsday for everyone!
I apologize if my summary of the film is inadequate. There are many plots going on and it’s never clear what’s crucial to understand, what’s just setup for the sequel and what’s simply there to flesh out the world. For example, we never understand what Anton’s powers and abilities are. For that matter, what the powers of any of The Others are. Some shapeshift into animals and we’re told they can cast spells, but you never know if it’s a skill they all have or if only a few who have learned. We learn there are vampires in this world. One of the first antagonists we meet is a vampire. Is a vampire an Other? The story seems to imply this. So do fairies, werewolves, and zombies also exist?
As the plot goes on, you get a sense that the novels who inspired the film must be jam-packed with an extensive mythology the screenwriter desperately wanted to include. We get tensions between the Light and the Darkness over Anton’s handling of the vampire case, hints indicating the prophecy is coming true, there’s another plot with the curse that threatens the entire world, and then a new sidekick for Anton is introduced 50 minutes in. She does little, making me wonder if she’s there just so we know who she is in the sequel. It goes on and on and is made further befuddling by the similar-looking actors and actresses. You begin to think that all of these plots are somehow related and will lead somewhere, but they do not. We could’ve all done without all of the ominous scenes of Zavulon playing a weird video game that is actually a glimpse into the future and instead welcomed someone sitting down and clearly explaining what’s happening.
I’ve heard Night Watch being compared to The Lord of the Rings because of its abundant special effects and extensive mythology, but the film is a lot more like Harry Potter, if you jumped into the extensive, overarching plot 4 movies in and instead of following a character who didn’t grow up as a wizard and needed to ask questions, everyone was totally in the know and disregarded all newcomers. In the film’s defense, the special effects are quite good and the frustration I felt is due to the world being genuinely interesting but completely impenetrable. You want to know more about The Others, the curse, the prophecies, the politics going on between the forces of Light and Darkness but you’re out of luck.
Night Watch holds a lot of potential and it is an interesting - if a bit frustrating - fantasy adventure. The movie ends in a way that will make you eager to watch the second film and despite all of the flaws, a strong, clear second chapter could redeem the series. As is, I can only give it a middling rating. If you’re already familiar with the books or the mythology present here I’m sure you’ll really love it, but Night Watch is kind of a mess. If you do seek it out, watch the film in its original language with subtitles on. The English dub doesn’t feature actors who are nearly as good at emoting as the original Russian cast. (English Dub on DVD, July 29, 2014)