I have fairly specific sensibilities when it comes to fantasy and science fiction films. It leaves me a crankier and far more picky critic of them than I would be otherwise. It’s not that I demand great storytelling out of every genre entry, just that I expect a lot for the trade if you’re not going to bother. Also I hate pretension, and the ghettoized genres of science fiction and fantasy ironically produce more self-important nonsense than those nauseating Oscar Films that come out on Christmas Day.
After hearing tons of praise about Night Watch, the blockbuster Russian urban fantasy film, I finally got it from Netflix and popped it into the DVD. My friends love it. A lot of critics I respect love it too. Knowing that, please imagine my surprise at kind of hating the thing.
Look, there are a lot of good things about the movie. I mean, it is a high budget urban fantasy film, and the simple fact that someone made a film in that genre and got money for it deserves respect. I love urban fantasy. It’s manna from heaven to me. Yet every time someone tries their hand at the genre, they make something like Underworld and cause me to weep. Night Watch, to start with, is not filmed entirely in blue monocrhome, so it’s already better than Underworld. So bully for it there.
That’s not all, either. There are a lot of strong aspects to the production, from set design to cinematography to the feel of the world. This is not a piece of crap in the way many movies are pieces of crap. It is, though, exemplary of the kind of failures you find in most fantasy storytelling.
Night Watch manages to be both too big and too small at once. It opens with one of those bombastic infodump prologues where we learn, basically, that there is good, there is evil, they are at war and that the war is at a stalemate until some bullshit prophecy comes true. We’ve seen this plot hundreds of times; if you’re going to use it, at least trust us get it without your ten minute explanation. Anyway.
There’s this thing that happens in fantasy stories that’s hard to describe. The plot revolves around the end of the world, which is a premise that carries with it some sort of scope. This isn’t about stopping bank robbers. It’s about saving the lives of billions of people and stopping the forces of pure evil. That’s big. Or, it should be big. Night Watch is trying to tell a story with serious scope, but it fails miserably at it in a way that is not at all uncommon.
Scope consists of two parts. One is the setup. Your story needs to exist on a stage large enough to give the impression of Big Things Happening, even when they’re not happening on screen. The other is the story itself. This is where things get tricky, and it’s easier to understand what doesn’t work than what does. When you get down to it, the story needs to travel. It needs to move.
Night Watch is a classic example of what doesn’t work. Sure, the story is about the battle between good and evil and the coming of a super-being who will unbalance the world, winning the war for the side he chooses. That’s a big stage. But from there, everything is both straightforward and small in scale. The story takes place over what feels like 2 days and visits maybe a half dozen sets. We open with our hero trying to save a boy from vampires, and we end with pretty much the same thing. The first battle takes place in a run down apartment and the final one takes place on the roof of a different apartment with little in between. That’s it. That’s as far as we go. That’s as far as we travel.
Night Watch plays like a two hour prequel to the second film. We meet our hero, and we follow him as he does next to nothing other than fight the same vampire twice and protect a single boy in a single apartment. The danger never escalates and the stakes never change. What we know at the outset is almost exactly what we know ten minutes from the end.
It’s like being told, at the start of a movie, that China and Russia are in conspiracy to destroy the Western world. We see armies gathering, helicopters firing up and nuclear missile silos opening. Then we cut to a dock in downtown Manhattan and are told that if the hero can’t get a briefcase to the U.N. building uptown in an hour, war will break out. We’re also shown a single Chinese villain with his Russian villain girlfriend who intend to stop the briefcase from arriving. The rest of the film has two car chases and a fight in the garage underneath the U.N. before the hero brings the briefcase into the General Assembly and the world is saved.
Wait a second, what happened to the armies? What happened to world destruction? This was a battle for the lives of billions and it came down to a car chase and a fistfight? No plot twists? No moments of valiant heroism? No helicopters with nuclear missiles flying into Taiwan? What the hell happened?
That’s Night Watch. It’s also Reign of Fire and Underworld and His Majesty’s Dragon and countless other films and novels. Simple, straightforward stories are awesome, provided you don’t set them up by promising global carnage. The Warriors is about nothing more than getting from point A to point B, but it doesn’t pretend to be about more than that. And, frankly, it gets more out of its simple premise than things like Night Watch get out of the end of the world.
If you want to be a simple, vampire-hunting urban fantasy about saving a 13 year old boy, that’s fine! Just be that thing, and be it well. Dump the eternal battle between good and evil and let your characters do more than be vessels of exposition delivery.