Status: In theaters (opened 1/8/10)
Directed By: Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig
Written By: Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig
Cinematographer: Ben Nott
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill, Claudia Karvan, Willem Dafoe
It’s not hard to imagine what the initial spark of inspiration for Daybreakers must’ve been; there have been several releases in recent years that successfully turned the zombie-movie genre on its head in one way or another: 28 Days Later… made the zombies fast, Shaun of the Dead made them funny, I Am Legend [re]made them the majority. And for the past couple of years, vampires have been “in”—beyond the teenage girl craze of the Twilight movies and the decidedly adult guilty-pleasure craze of True Blood, there was also the very unique Let the Right One In from 2008 (a movie which, incidentally, I probably would’ve picked as the best film of that year, had I seen it prior to making my list).
So take all of these examples (and many more) together and it seems like the time should be ripe for a novel take on a vampire movie. (And in the interest of accuracy, I should mention that Daybreakers has been several years coming, though I think my reasoning above still holds when applied to its eventual theatrical release date.) The novelty in this movie—written and directed by a couple of Aussie twins known as the Spierig Brothers—is that vampires have become the majority. They’ve gone mainstream, so to speak; nearly everybody in this fictional near-future world has been “turned,” and the environment in which they live reflects it: the whole society functions at night, nobody fears death (smoking, it seems, has made a huge resurgence in popularity), and human blood is the most precious commodity. As with any alternate-reality film, learning about the specifics of Daybreakers‘ world provides for an enjoyable and intriguing first act—although I did think the Spierigs tried a little too hard to be clever on occasion. This vampire population, for instance, uses a “Subwalk” to get around during the day, leading me to wonder why they wouldn’t just take the train—it’s still underground, and thus out of the sunlight, right?
But no matter, what we’re here to learn about as Daybreakers opens is that Edward (Ethan Hawke) is a hematologist working for the premier supplier of human blood, a company called Bromley Marks. His boss is Bromley himself (Sam Neill), and everybody’s worried about the dwindling human population, and the impending blood shortage it implies. Edward begins to wonder if there might be a cure for vampirism, but Bromley doesn’t want to hear about that—harvesting and selling human blood to the vampire population has made him wealthy and powerful. Edward meets a couple of humans, Audrey (Claudia Karvan) and Elvis (Willem Dafoe), who believe they have discovered the cure he’s been looking for. And then the story is set up, and everything gets wonky.
Crucial to any story like this are the rules under which it operates, and its adherence to them. Daybreakers starts out abiding by this formula: There was some sort of plague of vampirism, which has resulted in most of the world being “turned.” Check. Such a large percentage of the population has become vampires that human blood is now in more demand than can be satisfied. Check. Vampires can turn humans into other vampires by biting them. Check. Vampires are immortal, unless they’re exposed to sunlight, or are the unlucky recipient of a wooden stake to the heart. Check and check. But then… well, it turns out that vampires who don’t consume enough blood turn into these weird-looking bat-like things. Okay, I’m willing to buy that. And, well, the sunlight doesn’t always kill them. And then there’s the way in which the cure that Dafoe’s character has discovered actually functions. To reveal the specifics would be to both spoil some of the movie’s surprises and also to demonstrate my lack of understanding of them, because frankly, it gets pretty hard to keep up with. There’s at least one twist too many, and the rules change too frequently, all for the sake of repeatedly turning the tables and catching the audience by surprise.
This is, admittedly, sort of a novel way to approach a vampire movie. The attempts at shock come not as much from scary things jumping out of the dark to startle you—though that does happen a few times—but rather from the story modifying itself as it goes in an attempt to change things up from the vampire lore we’re used to. This would all be well and good if it could just make up its mind about how the world of Daybreakers works, but it’s all so malleable that the audience can’t keep track of which rules are in effect at any given point.
It’s the kind of movie that makes you almost feel bad for the actors in it. Hawke and Neill give performances that almost feel out of place because they’re trying to take them too seriously. Willem Dafoe, on the other hand, is sufficiently over-the-top with his twangy Southern ex-vampire, in a tongue-in-cheek way that makes it hard to believe he kept a straight face when given his lines. The production value, too, is sub-par; I’ll never understand why movies at this current stage of technological development insist on using CG fire effects when it looks so damn bad, but Daybreakers can be chalked up as yet another example of one that’s fallen into this trap. There’s an over-reliance on CGI in general, in fact: one early scene involving an attempt by Hawke’s character to cure a fellow vampire went so far out of its way to use poorly incorporated graphics instead of regular old make-up effects that it took me out of the movie.
Daybreakers, basically, wants to be something it’s not. It’s a movie about vampires, but it’s not really a horror movie—it’d rather be a mystery about how this particular brand of vampirism works. And then it gets so wrapped up with that idea that it outdoes its own cleverness along the way, to the point of not actually revealing much about the mystery it began with. What’s left is a movie that has some fun and intriguing moments here and there, but doesn’t really satisfy on any front.