When Russian Film Came in From the Cold: Night Watch and Day Watch

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This article was originally written for Subtitled Online July 2012.

The Russian fantasy blockbusters NIGHT WATCH (2004) and DAY WATCH (2006), written and directed by Timur Bekmambetov and based on the novels by Sergey Lukyaneko, are far more relevant to Russian filmmaking than you might initially realise.

Let’s be honest here, Night Watch isn’t a particularly good film, and the sequel Day Watch is a modest improvement – at best. The films follow a centuries-old war between people with supernatural powers serving either the forces of light or the forces of darkness. Both films have a distinctive, oddball visual style, and some original and creative ideas, but they are also both incredibly tonally inconsistent, the acting is hit-and-miss and their plots are nigh-on impossible to follow unless you’re keeping notes from the start, such is the richness and complexity of the lore of the novel series the films are based on.

While both have their glaring weaknesses, the Watch films are in fact rather important to modern Russian cinema. A big-budget production at an estimated $4,200,000, and funded by the government-owned Channel One Russia, Night Watch was the country’s first real entry to Hollywood-style blockbuster territory, and represented the country’s belated return to large-scale film productions after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its film industry over a decade earlier.

Night Watch broke box office records in Russia, and when the sequel Day Watch was released in 2006, it repeated this feat by becoming the highest-grossing film ever in post-communist Russia, surpassing the previous $20 million record held by the 2005 war film 9th COMPANY. Although Night Watch was undeniably an entertainment phenomenon in its native country, some Russian critics dismissed it for pandering to Hollywood and for betraying traditional Russian filmmaking practices.

When it was first released, Night Watch was a unique spectacle in Russia. It was the beginning of an epic fantasy saga following vampires, witches and shape-shifters locked in an eternal battle between good and evil – it was the epitome of high-concept escapist entertainment. The film was brimming with unique and unusual ideas, and had striking and expensive-looking visual effects and big, technically complex stunts – elements which were only refined and improved upon in its sequel. It was a world away from anything else being made in Russia at the time. There’s certainly a stylistic influence from huge-scale Hollywood franchises like THE MATRIX and BLADE, and also from international filmmakers working in the fantasy genre, such as Guillermo del Toro and Terry Gilliam – and this is all the more remarkable when we consider it was created within a film industry that has had to be rebuilt from the ground up over the past twenty years.

Around 100 visual effects artists were employed to meet the more technically demanding aspects of the two films, and although not quite the quality of Hollywood special effects, the computer-generated visuals in the films are unusual enough to be striking. The films don’t hold back on the discussion of big philosophical ideas either – not only do they debate the nature of good and evil, but also the unfixed, fluctuating nature of each moral extreme. There are also some imaginative twists on traditional film depictions of vampires and the occult.

Russia has contributed greatly to film on the world stage from the birth of cinema, and it goes without saying that The Soviet Union film industry produced far, far better films than Night Watch and Day Watch. When you can boast the names of such masters as Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky, the writer/director of the Watch films Timur Bekmambetov, cannot compete. Bekmambetov went on to direct WANTED and ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER in Hollywood, which were hardly any more impressive or consistent (though Abe was at least pretty fun).

As high-concept spectacle, the two watch films are arguably the first of their kind, and arguably started an entirely new trend in Russian film, which means that Russia might one day be able to compete with the juggernaut that is the Hollywood blockbuster – perhaps not in terms of extravagance, but in terms of providing viewers with something a little different and more spectacular to entertain them. Without Night Watch and Day Watch, and the film industry recovery they helped to facilitate, we might never have seen such high-concept modern Russian epics such as 2007’s MONGOL, and that would be a real tragedy.

The Russian film industry’s recovery following the collapse of the Soviet Union was protracted and difficult, and it took the bravery and boldness of the makers of Night Watch and Day Watch to prove that Russia could still pull off big-budget filmmaking. The scale and ambition of these two fantasy blockbusters changed the landscape of modern Russian entertainment forever, and promises an interesting future, both for native and international film audiences. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Spike Jonze, Rian Johnson and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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