I've never really contemplated the functionality of subtitles in foreign films except as a way of understanding what characters were saying, whether it's "Vous pouvez vous enculer avec tes frits de liberté" ("You can shove your freedom fries") or "Anche noi Italiani pensiamo che Roberto Benigni é un'idiota" ("Even we Italians think Roberto Benigni is a moron"). But the subtitles employed in the Russian fantasy yarn Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor) are so creatively presented that they surely deserve some kind of Academy Award recognition at next year's shindig. Rather than blocky white letters that remain stapled to the bottom strip of the movie screen, these words are prone to changing color (always to crimson), floating behind characters at the forefront of the scene, or melting away until all that remains is a brief, faint afterglow.
Of course, if the presentation of a movie's subtitles is its strongest asset, then we're in trouble.
Just as the magnificent Spirited Away was plugged upon its US release as the film that sprinted past Titanic to become the all-time top grosser in its Japanese homeland, Night Watch has similarly been touted for surpassing The Return of the King and Spider-Man 2 as Russia's biggest money-maker ever. The desire of both countries' populations to reward their own film industries is inspiring, but Japan's achievement seems more admirable because their film is Japanese to its animated core. Night Watch might contain plenty of material that is intrinsically Russian (only viewers who don't have to rely on those cool subtitles would know for sure), but on its face value, the movie comes across as an attempt to emulate the typical Hollywood blockbuster. Director and co-writer Timur Bekmambetov may have adapted his movie from a novel by Sergei Lukyanenko (who also co-scripted), but stateside audiences will view it as a collection of Keanu Reeves moments, with scenes reminiscent of those from The Matrix, Constantine and Bram Stoker's Dracula (though thankfully not Point Break). And learning that Bekmambetov first made his mark as a director of music videos and TV commercials draws the Hollywood connection even closer.
This is the first film in a planned trilogy -- the second part, Day Watch, has already been released in Russia -- and it's nothing if not ambitious. Set in present-day Moscow, it concerns the eternal battle between humanoid creatures known as "The Others," divided into two camps that either represent the forces of Light (i.e. the good guys) or the forces of Darkness (the bad guys). Naturally, an ancient prophecy speaks of the arrival of the most powerful Other of them all, one who will tilt the balance of power toward whichever side he or she joins. In the meantime, one conflicted member (Konstantin Khabensky as Anton) of Night Watch, the group of good Others that keeps an eye on the bad Others, has his hands full -- whew, let me take a breather here -- saving a small boy from a hungry vampire, saving his colleagues from the leader of the villainous Day Watch and saving the world from a cursed woman with a vortex constantly swirling around her head.
As presented, it's all nonsensical, punched across with a scarcity of levity (my, how a sense of humor would have helped!) and an even greater lack of internal logic. In one scene, Anton's colleague informs him it's too late to save the aforementioned lad; next minute, he's saved anyway. In other scenes, characters exhibit heretofore unmentioned powers that suddenly come in handy. And so it goes.
Still, there's no denying that Night Watch contains some groovy visuals, and for many fantasy fans, that's more than enough reason to justify the film's existence. But any other possible attributes will remain lost in translation, and not even undulating subtitles can offer any assistance.