I did not see Daybreakers when it first arrived in theaters, even though I’d really wanted to. It starred Sam Neill, Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe, three actors who have been in their share of dreck but who all tend to choose interesting projects. It put a new spin on vampires (it had been a long time since I’d been excited about vampires). And it was directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, who’d directed the Australian zombie film Undead, which I’d seen most of and is, as Roger Ebert put it, “the kind of movie that would be so bad it’s good, except it’s not bad enough to be good enough.” So my curiosity was piqued.
Daybreakers came to America in January 2010, and it has been almost three years since then. In all that time it has seldom come up in conversation. What appeared for all intents and purposes to be a stylish twist on the vampire story did not make that big of an impact on the general populace, and I’ve always wondered why.
Daybreakers is set in 2019, ten years after mutated bats turned almost everyone on Earth into vampires. Pretty traditional vampires, too, in that they don’t appear in mirrors and stakes through the heart make them burst into flames. (Sunlight also makes them burst into flames, but that’s de rigueur.) Society has adapted to the mostly vampire population, with all work shifting to nighttime, sidewalks leading underground, blood bars replacing coffee shops, houses and cars being fitted with blackout windows, and fedoras coming back into fashion. Ethan Hawke plays a sad vampire named Edward, who is a hematologist for the Bromley-Marks corporation. Once upon a time Bromley-Marks may have been a pharmaceutical company, but now that everyone is resistant to aging, injury and disease the big money’s in blood. Headed by a sinister Sam Neill, Bromley-Marks stores mortal human beings and treats them like a mix between cattle and currency. But, as you might imagine, with vampires ruling the Earth, human beings are scarce. Even worse, vampires that go too long without blood mutate into Nosferatu-like monsters called “Subsiders” (because genre writing is hard).
With this precious resource drying up faster than you can say “petroleum allegory,” Edward is desperately searching for an artificial solution to real blood. You may wonder why the vampires don’t just make peace with the humans and let the two species coexist on generous blood donations, but that would overlook the short-sightedness of The Man. Moo hoo ha ha.
Eventually Edward comes into contact with a human resistance movement and meets Elvis, who is really Willem Dafoe kind of sort of not really bothering to do a southern accent. Elvis used to be a vampire. But he’s not anymore. So there’s a cure! But how will Edward convince Sam Neill that at last their long nightmare is over? He is, after all, very sinister, and he likes money. And before he was a vampire he had cancer. So, bonus.
This review may be a little tongue in cheek but the movie most certainly isn’t. It takes itself seriously, it sets up a great premise and its most brilliant moments come not from the story proper but in all the little touches of vampire society that creep in from the periphery. The style and scope of the sets are also very impressive, especially for a movie made on just $20 million. It looks like a much more expensive feature than it is.
Unfortunately for the Spierigs, that frugality netted them very little profit. Daybreakers came and went and nobody paid too much mind. The reason is because Daybreakers, for all its cleverness, is not very interesting and not written very well. Its writing is perfectly satisfactory, it just never pops. The oil/energy allegory too, though it’s there – it’s never more than just there. And as to the “cure” itself. Yeah, well, alright.
I get the distinct impression that Daybreakers was meant to be shot in black and white (not just because of the fedoras). There is a scene fairly early on when a group of vampires are waiting for the subway at night and a passing train puts them all into shadow except for their glowing eyes. It is a very nice touch. There are remnants of that quasi-1940s vibe lingering throughout the movie, and at the very least a real noir/B-movie effort would have complemented the film’s mundane dialogue and turned the thing into something interesting to watch. I can easily imagine a black and white pitch from the Spierigs and even more easily imagine the studio immediately putting the kibosh on that. Instead we’re left with an odd saturation in the nighttime scenes that does everything to distract from the fact that it’s taking place in a real world. Which may be the point, but it’s not enjoyable.*
Daybreakers is not a bad movie. The premise has real teeth, but the execution is so middle-of-the-road it’s mostly harmless.
Directed by The Spierig Brothers
*Though the Spierigs did make sure Claudia Karvan forgot to wear a bra for the second half of the movie. Thanks for pushing that artistic envelope, guys.
For more film reviews, check out Pierce Nahigyan’s Article Archive