Any cultural phenomenon has its progeny, and The Matrix is no exception. That trilogy mixed science fiction, kung fu, and water-cooler philosophy into an intoxicating blend spiked with the latest in computer graphics. Fans were hooked, and even as the films tapered off toward dismal, they kept coming. Recently, a rash of movies have come out with clear ancestral links to The Matrix, some of which we could have done without and others, like the recent Russian import Night Watch, we should all be very grateful for.
Night Watch was adapted from a trilogy of novels by Sergei Lukyanenko, who also co-wrote the screenplay. It opened in Russia in the summer of 2004 and went on to become the highest-grossing film in post-Soviet history, earning over $15 million at the box office.
The film actually bears more resemblance to the ongoing Underworld series than to The Matrix, more neu-school horror film than science fiction. Both series are also plotted around a war, one that has raged for millennia, in which neither side is necessarily good or evil. This is deep stuff, people!
Night Watch opens looking sort of like a Capitol One commercial -- a lot of armor and smashing amid whirling cameras -- but it quickly displays wonderful wit and innovative special effects, which are doubly astonishing when you consider the film was done on a $5 million budget by director Timur Bekmambetov. What stands out is the way Bekmambetov mixes low-key interior cinematography with playful and imaginative FX, even turning the subtitles into part of the mise-en-scene.
The plot? Okay, there are these "Others," which is a catchall for any magical being, from seer to vampire to shape-shifting bear. When you find out you're one of them, you get to choose between Dark and Light, basically high-stakes kickball with the future of the world. Our hero Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) makes a big mistake early on in the film, which leads to his discovering he is an Other, and while he decides to side with the Light, it quickly becomes clear he is still expected to do dirty work.
While Anton struggles to get his act together, we are introduced to a series of larger-than-life prophecies, but the film always manages to stay in the moment. It has humor and a host of excellent supporting characters, especially the nefarious Zavulon, leader of the Dark Others, who spends his time at home endlessly replaying the film's final scene on his PlayStation until he gets it right.
Toward the end of the film, there is moment when Night Watch's central plot is suddenly and anti-climatically resolved. This momentary letdown is a ruse, however, a reminder that the film knows both scope and attention to detail. Like those nifty Russian dolls, it opens up even as it comes to a close. The sequel, Day Watch, opened in Russia in January and is due in America later, but this movie is so good that I'm hoping to use the magic of eBay to shorten that wait.