Daybreakers (R) 108 min. Written & Directed by: The Spiereg Brothers. Starring: Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Isabel Lucas Cinematography: Ben Nott Score: Christopher Gordon
At a Christmas get-together this year, one of my extended family members told me he had seen the site and would probably read it more if I didn’t review so many damn vampire movies. At last inventory, I’ve technically reviewed 2, but one of those was New Moon so I’m not sure it counts. Eitherway, it seemed to be the gore and tedious nature of the genre that had done him in.
The good news is that Daybreakers, the latest sci-fi horror mash from the Australian Spierig brothers, is a vamp flick that even my relations might appreciate; at one level it’s a return to the darker side of bloodsucking fiction and at another it’s something completely new. For all of the genre fans out there, this one is wrapped up in loads of atmosphere, thoughtful visual design and action set pieces aplenty. It’s Blade Runner by way of Blade, and it’s actually pretty darn good.
The strongest feature of Daybreakers is the world it creates for its characters and story. The year is 2019 and the remaining inhabitants of Earth have been separated into two groups thanks to a genetic plague that ravaged the planet a few years back. Most of the population now live as vampires–classic stab with a stake, allergic to sunlight, nosferatu–and the rest are humans who are either actively hunted or harvested for their blood. Now, after foolishly eating the humans to near extinction, the vampires are facing starvation and the potential deterioration of their way of life.
Living in cities with underground habitations where neon is the ruling color of the day, the vamp culture relies upon the efforts of Bromsley Marks, a giant conglomerate who supplies the blood that the country runs on. They are pushing forward with the development of a synthetic blood substitute but at the same time are still rounding up the remaining humans for feeding. If the vampires cannot continue with the blood diet, they will experience a metamorphosis into what Bromley refers to as Subsiders, animalistic monsters who bear more similarities with bats than humans.
Enter Edward (no not THAT one), a hematologist who has sworn off the human blood for pig’s blood because he views the process by which it is obtained as unethical. He works in research, but it isn’t an alternative to draining humans he is looking for, it’s a cure for the vampirism. His leanings lead him to conflict with his brother, Frank, one of those vampires who doesn’t mind weaning the populace off of the real stuff as long as some is set aside for vampires like himself who would drink nothing else.
When Edward meets up with an Elvis loving southern renegade played by Willem Dafoe he learns that there is a cure among the human resistance and finds himself at the center of a social maelstrom that soon develops into an all out war.
What I personally appreciated about Daybreakers is how forthcoming it is with its own schlocky nature. There are some pretty compelling ideas and dystopian imagery in the early sections, but even then the Spierigs understand they are making a movie about a planet full of vampires and they have fun with the concept. They don’t dumb down their graphic novel-esque story for gore hounds, but they don’t shy away from the red stuff either and by movie’s end the brothers are putting all of their special fx experience to work.
Not all of the action-heavy final third is worthwhile, but it’s coming at the end of a film that is more engrossing than it has any right to be. Visually, the Spierigs nail the fight sequences and I think this is one of the few recent pictures that works simultaneously as speculative fiction and as a more traditional Friday night action flick. It may not all be smart, but the performances and the cinematography are nothing short of excellent, and they give this low budget thriller a real sheen of legitimacy.
Ethan Hawke, so good all those years ago in that other tale of genetic supremacy, Gattaca, does strong work here as Edward. He’s got the goth handwringing down but he also brings a sense of the otherworldly to his portrayal that a certain other Ed never managed. A genre film can never have enough Sam Neil for my taste, and this one has plenty; Neill is the head of Bromley and a sinister vamp CEO who keeps finding new ways to up the corporate line and downgrade the common citizen.
Stealing the show (like you knew he would) is Willem Dafoe as a man who was once a vampire who was once a man. There aren’t many vampires converted in the cinemas, so Dafoe gets to cover some new and interesting ground as an individual who has reclaimed his humanity after losing it.
As I mentioned, the Spierigs don’t exactly bring all of their tantalizing plot ideas to fruition, and if I had to guess they have held back here in hopes that they can score a Daybreakers sequel. The first half of their movie has the level of invention and set design that a masterpiece like Dark City possessed, but by the time their film is up and running it’s clear that they are skewing closer to the franchise considerations of something like The Matrix. You can feel the plane coming in for a landing just as it’s really starting to soar.
No matter, for a film released so early into the New Year, notoriously known as the ‘dumping grounds’, Daybreakers is kind of great. It offers up that sweet nectar that sci-fi and horror fans are thirsty for.