Dark vs. light, Russian style

  • June 5, 2007
{mosimage}For those who found the Lord of the Rings trilogy a tad bombastic and perhaps simplistic in its fairyland reduction of the forces of light and forces of darkness into two massively clashing armies, now there’s an alternative — from Russia, with love.
Day Watch, out June 1, and Night Watch, available on DVD, are the biggest grossing Russian movies of all time. They are the film version of a trilogy of very popular novels by Sergei Lukyanenko about the eternal war between light and darkness, good and evil, which rages on the streets of modern Moscow, unseen by Muscovites.

In Peter Jackson’s films of Lord of the Rings, the forces of light and darkness are kept clearly separate, building up to the big, apocalyptic showdown. However, in Day Watch and Night Watch director Timur Bekmambetov gives us a much more ambiguous standoff between good and evil — one which features two Cold War special ops teams who police a truce between light and darkness. The forces of light watch over the licensed activities of the forces of darkness, and the forces of darkness do the same after sun-up.

The key figures in the two opposing armies are the Others — vampires, werewolves and shape shifters who choose to align themselves with either the forces of darkness or light. Two Great Others, yet to be discovered, could upset the balance depending on whether they choose darkness or light, or could trigger the apocalypse should they meet in battle.

In the absence of the Great Others, the perfectly balanced armies here don’t just oppose each other. So long as the forces are even, they have a mutual interest in keeping the truce, since neither side can win the war. They co-operate. They negotiate. Friendships and sympathies break across enemy lines.

As Anton, an Other enlisted in the forces of light, explains to a trainee Other early in Day Watch, “Light, dark... What’s the difference? Sometimes there are shades of grey.”

It isn’t just this hint of moral complexity in Day Watch and Night Watch that sets these movies apart. There’s also a willingness to take on real life. The secret armies battling it out behind the backs of Muscovites are as fantastic as anything dreamed up by J.R.R. Tolkein, but this fantasy is tempered by the context of modern life with cars and video games, loneliness, materialism, disappointment, fears, crime, economics — all the features of the 21st century — in play. The universals of the allegory are clear enough, but there are also hints of the political and the mundane.

When Moscow finally meets the apocalypse, it’s probably not an accident that in a Russian film Russia’s great capital begins to look like bombed out Chechnya. The film hints that Russia is aware of how it has lost its innocence.

So how can Anton, the conflicted Other of the forces of light, keep the apocalypse from happening? He has to undo an unsuccessful abortion. In essence, he has to choose life for his unborn son — to take back his wish for his child’s death.

And what can inspire this metanoia? This turning? This repentance? Love, of course.

The miracle is that in the context of a grand-scale fantasy these choices are not simple, clear-as-day and unavoidable. As in real life, they are difficult, muddy and heart wrenching. They have a cost, and the results are never clear.

Ultimately, the right choice does not make Anton’s life easier and does not guarantee him either wisdom or happiness. It makes him a regular guy.

The first of the two movies is Night Watch. You may want to rent it before going out to see Day Watch in a theatre. At just over two hours and full of spectacular effects, Day Watch is value for your entertainment dollar and will stand on its own without the earlier instalment.

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