On the basis of Night Watch, the first installment of Timur Bekmambetov’s sci-fi/horror/fantasy trilogy (based on Sergei Lukyanenko’s novels), Hollywood’s hegemony now stretches to mainstream Russian cinema. Freely combining elements from The Matrix, Underworld, Star Wars, the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and countless other mega productions of the sort, this special effects-saturated extravaganza—a huge hit in its native country—concerns a clandestine conflict taking place behind the “real” world in which supernatural “Others” vie for the souls (and flesh) of humanity. After centuries of war, the Light (who are called the Night Watch, and include clairvoyants and shape-shifters) and the Dark (who are known as the Day Watch, and are vampires) now obey a tenuous truce stipulating that humans must be allowed to freely choose their own noble or nefarious paths without Others’ interference.
Into this convoluted arena steps Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), a guy who tries to have his adulterous wife’s unborn child magically aborted but, during the botched procedure, instead learns of his own ability to see into the future. Anton is haunted by his past actions and the sinful stain they’ve left on his soul, even though Khabensky—hidden behind sunglasses, unwilling to smile or look people directly in the eyes, and perpetually lurching about the city—makes him seem less like a man wracked by guilt and more like an incorrigible drunk suffering from an extended hangover. As he investigates the neck-biters’ interest in a small boy named Yegor (Dima Martynov), Anton becomes embroiled in a prophecy about “The Great Other” who will tip the scales in favor of the Dark.
Yet Night Watch‘s preponderance of elaborate mumbo jumbo soon becomes an unbearable drag that sucks the life from a story intended to be exhilaratingly epic. Bekmambetov’s hyperactively dark and derivative visual style is equal parts David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Tony Scott, and though one can admire the filmmaker’s attempt to make subtitles more palatable for young, foreign film-averse audiences (throughout, the dialogue text evaporates, pulsates, and changes color in tune with the action), it also speaks to his film’s superficiality. Night Watch‘s story of mysticism and monsters has no thematic or allegorical depth, and as such concentrates most of its energy on the “wow” factor of its bleak, gritty Moscow and its paranormal protagonists’ extrasensory powers.
However, with the exception of a few momentarily cool images (Anton seeing Yegor’s head as a translucent orb of red spider-veins; a speeding truck somersaulting over a man crossing the street) there’s a general sense of having been here and seen all of this many times before. Still, for a film primarily defined by kinetic, CGI-enhanced flashiness, it’s fitting that the climactic cliffhanger battle plays out exactly as Dark leader Zavulon (Victor Verzbitsky) previously foresaw via a Street Fighter-esque video game.