A look back at 2004’s Night Watch and how it used CGI better than Hollywood does today.

On the heels of Netflix’s fantasy/crime genre-mash-up BRIGHT, it seems like a fitting time to re-visit an earlier film that also brought themes popularized by the fantasy genre into the modern era with the 2004 Russian import Night Watch.

Synopsis: “Among normal humans live the ‘Others’ possessing various supernatural powers (light and dark). Several centuries ago they signed a truce that allowed them to co-exist peacefully, while forming Watches to monitor each other (Night Watch keeps tabs on the dark others and vice versa for the Day Watch). A new member of the Night Watch, Anton, becomes entangled in a case that is both extremely personal and has stakes that could change the course of the Light/Dark balance forever.”

This movie and its sequel are based on the hit series of novels (of same name) and a record-shattering success for the Russian box office, even making its way to the US for a theatrical release. It became a bit of a cult classic on home video as well. For movie-goers (both in Russia and the US), the use of CGI was still in its infancy as films like iRobot and The Polar Express, who had impressive effects for the time, seem painfully dated now. Even the Hugh Jackman-led Van Helsing (similar in some ways to Night Watch’s vampire-driven storyline) looks terribly hokey now over a decade later. However there’s something about Night Watch that (for the most part) still holds up quite well.

The owl-to-human transformation scene in Night Watch.

Part of it comes from the film’s more judicious use of CGI along side practical effects. Throughout the course of the story, digital effects are used in a way that attempts to blend them as seamlessly as possible into the physical world while still making things like magic feel much larger than life. It also uses old school camera tricks to make a little bit of CG go a long way. There’s an instance early on in the film where a woman transforms into a Tiger. We see her enter the apartment, her face begins to morph into the tiger and then there’s a jump cut to a CG tiger bounding onto a kitchen counter. The film cuts to a tight shot of a frying pan which the a human hand grabs. When they cut back out to the wide shot, the tiger has transformed back into a human woman and is holding the frying pan in the air. By not actually showing the transformation, but tactfully implying (twice!) it by using the action and editing to convey that to the audience, it makes the “magic” of the scene feel more real and mysterious than if we saw a CG transformation happen in perfectly rendered detail.

In filmmaking, directors know that sometimes letting the audience fill in the gaps for themselves is more impactful and magical than any team at ILM could ever create (the most notable example is the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino pans the shot away from Mr. Blonde cutting off the cop’s ear and that creates a more deeply rooted sense of unease with the viewer because we’re imagining something more grotesque than actually happened in our minds). To this day we still see films like Captain America: Civil War whose budget was 50 times that of Night Watch lean so heavily on CGI that the film looks dated just a couple of years later and aside from making the action feel more cartoonish, it steals a bit of the wonder and magic that the audience is supposed to have when watching a film by showing us every gravity-defying, heavily edited punch, kick and jump. With Night Watch, this film knew just how to use digital effects to create and elevate a mood – not just use it to have superpowered cartoon characters fight each other.

Konstantin Khabenskiy as Anton.

This film isn’t all bad-ass, well-integrated effects (though the level of artistry involved is a BIG selling point of this film). Bekmamabetov’s adaptation of the novel felt so raw and intrepid – like Russia’s answer to Tony Scott’s evocative editing and cinematography but with early Alex Proyas’ (The Crow, Dark City) tonal sensibilities. It is a world just beneath the world we live in; just a bit darker and more mysterious. The story plays with the conventional hero-villain dynamics by showcasing the moral gray area of the Night Watch’s practices via the sad story of a young woman (vampire) who was caught up in a larger game of chess between the Watches. This is a recurring theme in this film as both sides are constantly at war, though not overtly, utilizing innocent pawns and morally ambiguous methods to gain the upper hand.

The idea of fate/prophecies also play a large role in Night Watch (and its sequel Day Watch) as characters are often so caught up in one course of action, they fail to realize the larger implications of what they do. For the character of Svetlana, she becomes a focal point for Anton and the Night Watch as she is unknowingly linked to an apocalyptic event. From her perspective she’s just a very unlucky woman, but the Watch discover she has been cursed by a very powerful witch. It is a race against time to discover who cursed her and how to stop it, but along they lose sight of their opponents moves on the proverbial chess board of fate. It all gets nicely tangled up and unlike most Hollywood films, doesn’t end with the joy-joy feelings we’re accustomed to for movies like these – though the sequel did provide a balanced resolution.

A Vampiress caught between the Night and Day Watch’s games.

Night Watch became a bit of a calling card for director Timur Bekmambetov who went on to direct Wanted and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. Despite these films not being as groundbreaking as Night Watch, the cache he developed from it still carries weight in Hollywood as he recently directed the $100MM remake of Ben-Hur. If you can find the original Russian dub of Night Watch – that’s the best way to watch it but the English dub is actually pretty decent. While there are some fully-CG’d sequences that look ridiculously dated, overall Night Watch managed to do a great deal more with a fraction of the effects that most superhero/sci-fi films today.

Check out Night Watch and then follow us on Twitter @Official_FAN to let us know your thoughts on this one.