Just when I was thinking that the concept of the vampire as a frightening monster was going to be done in - not by holy water and wooden stakes but by sparkle and poofy hair and emo-boy posturing – along comes Daybreakers, giving vampire movies a much-needed shot in the arm. It’s not perfect, but it gets quite a bit right and it’s damned refreshing in its way.
In the year 2019 a vampire plague has pretty much taken over the world, and non-vampire humans now account for only 5 percent of the population. This is a problem not just for the humans but for the vampires as well. You see, consumption of human blood isn’t a matter of choice for these vampires. If they go too long without it they begin to change from creatures who more or less look human (save for the usual pasty skin, fangs, and yellowish-brown eyes) to a sort of human-bat hybrid, immensely powerful and completely insane. Drinking animal blood isn’t an adequate substitute and feeding off other vampires (or for the truly desperate, one’s own blood) only make this descent into savagery happen that much quicker.
At a biochemistry lab run by the transparently evil Bromley (Sam Neill, bringing his Damien Thorn smirk out of retirement), researcher Ed Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is working on a human blood substitute. Unfortunately, his trials on vampire subjects have me with what one could charitably call a lack of success. Ed has a vested interest in finding a substitute – he’s been subsisting off animal blood and is starting to show signs of deterioration. By chance he runs into a group of humans who say they have information about a possible cure for vampirism; unfortunately Ed’s brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) is a soldier charged with hunting down humans so they can be farmed for their blood.
Daybreakers has a lot going for it. The central premise is good if a bit implausible and the world where vampires are the majority is presented well. The Spierig Brothers, who both wrote and directed, have obviously put a lot of thought into what a mostly-vampire world would require to function – cars that have special UV shields to enable daytime driving, “subwalks” instead of sidewalks to provide shelter during daylight hours, and “farms” where humans are imprisoned and milked of their blood. Rarely if ever is the vampiric plague presented as a good thing – the transformation of blood-starved vampires into feral bat beasts aside, it’s delightfully disturbing to see professional businessmen go into a rage because their coffee has only 5 percent human blood in it, to see “civilized” people go into ecstasy as they lick spilled blood off the floor, and to see a young vampire girl commit suicide by deliberately exposing herself to the sun. (Unfortunately the use of wooden stakes against the vampires doesn’t work well – it’s never explained how the wood destroys the vampires and it comes off as just silly.)
While the movie is far too reliant on use of weird lighting to set the scene and the mood, overall the visual effects are quite effective. The use of physical effects rather than CGI is much welcomed, especially with the bat creatures and the use of stage blood. The only effects misstep is the vampire eyes – the effect is not all that necessary and it’s distracting, particularly when the actors seem to keep their eyes open a bit too often, possibly to show off the effect.
Which brings us to the weaker points of Daybreakers. The story is not terribly original, as Ed and the humans work to find a cure for vampirism, all the while dodging soldiers and the evil head of the biochem lab. This could be overlooked if the characters and the actors were more compelling. As written, Ed Dalton simply isn’t that interesting, and his portrayal by that Black Hole of Charisma, Ethan Hawke, does the film no favors. Faring better is Willem Dafoe as a human with a Secret That Changes Everything – he comes off poorly at first with a weird accent (and the nickname “Elvis” doesn’t help), but in time he’s the strongest character in the film. I confess I was disappointed with Sam Neill – it’s a pleasure to see him on the big screen once more but sadly he seems to be collecting a paycheck with this one, letting his “I once played the Antichrist” baggage do the heavy lifting for him.
Still, there’s enough here to please the fans, particularly if you’re really, REALLY tired of pretty-boy, do-nothing vampires. The Daybreakers vampires are old school, undead ghouls that are scary for a change. They’re Nosferatu’s great-grandchildren and I got a kick of seeing them on screen.