January 08, 2010

Daybreakers

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Daybreakers

HORROR/THRILLER:

Australia/United States, 2009

U.S. Release Date:

2010-01-08

Running Length:

1:36

MPAA Classification:

R (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Claudia Karvan, Sam Neill, Michael Dorman, Isabel Lucas

Director:

Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig

Screenplay:

Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig

Cinematography:

Ben Nott

Music:

Christopher Gordon

U.S. Distributor:

Lionsgate

Subtitles:

none


Daybreakers argues there still may be some new terrain to be strip-mined in the rush to exploit the bloodsucking undead. As far removed from the Twilight series as possible (with more in common with Children of Men), Daybreakers brings its vampires closer to the "classic" breed. Although no indication is provided of whether they're crucifix-shy or have a pathological distaste for garlic, they do not cast reflections, can be killed by a stake through the heart, and burst into flame when kissed by the sun (no sparkling here). It's unclear whether Daybreakers' creatures fall in love or have sex, but that's not relevant to what's going on in the film.

The premise is intriguing: What would happen if a mass vampire epidemic swept across the planet (sort of like the zombification of mankind in the George Romero movies) and humans - the major food source - became endangered? The best parts of Daybreakers relate to exploring the society that might emerge in such a situation, including the potential economic, political, technological, and military implications. The movie, written and directed by brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, doesn't just pay lip service to the background material. It is effectively interwoven into the story's tapestry, and may intrigue those who have grown weary of standard-order vampire movies. In addition to the back story, the movie raises questions about ideas as far ranging as what it means to be human and the morality of ethnic cleansing (an allegorical aspect). Daybreakers is primarily an adventure/thriller, and there are plenty of traditional elements, but more thought went into mapping out the scenario than one often uncovers in this sort of motion picture.

Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), a reluctant vampire, works as the chief hematologist at a major blood bank. His job: develop synthetic hemoglobin. Humans, who are farmed for their blood, are in short supply, and food shortages and the mutations that result when vampires feed on their own are endangering vampire society. The C.E.O., Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), sees profit not only from being able to sell artificial blood but from keeping supplies of the "real thing" on hand for connoisseurs willing to pay a higher price. Edward, however, won't consume human blood. Instead, he survives on a product engineered from pigs, much to the distress of his soldier brother, Frankie (Michael Dorman).

Edward's life changes when he comes face-to-face with a small group of humans led by a woman named Audrey (Claudia Karvan) and a man who calls himself Elvis (Willem Dafoe). Sympathetic to their cause, he agrees to help them, but has no idea what he's in for. Elvis - once a human, then a vampire, and now a human again - has inadvertently discovered a cure to vampirism, but he has no idea about its specifics or how to scientifically replicate it. That task falls to Edward and, once he achieves his goal, he becomes the single biggest threat to vampire dominance of Earth in 2019. And there's a twist to the cure even he hadn't foreseen.

The acting is of variable quality. I'm not one to bash Ethan Hawke on principle - his note-perfect work in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset have earned him a few mulligans - but he's the biggest problem with Daybreakers. His performance is lazy and unconvincing. He looks like he's in the movie exclusively for the paycheck. Sam Neill is also a cut below his normal high standard. Although by no means as laconic as Hawke, he doesn't do more with Bromley than alternatively play the tormented father (his daughter is still human; he wants her to join him in immortal bliss) and the oily business tycoon. In contrast, Willem Dafoe is a delight, bringing tremendous energy to his borderline over-the-top interpretation of Elvis. The best of the bunch is probably Claudia Karvan, an established Australian who has been appearing in films since she was a child in the '80s but who is relatively unknown outside of her native country.

If ideas and back story represent Daybreakers' strengths, its action sequences are its Achilles' heel. Although not poorly executed, most exist in the gray zone between "obligatory" and "ordinary." It's as if they have been included simply because the filmmakers are concerned there might not be an audience for an overly talky, sedate vampire movie in which there isn't a female character named Bella running around. So we get stock situations like car chases, monster mayhem, and predictable betrayals.

On balance, however, there are more things to like about Daybreakers than to dislike. The production is loaded with impressive touches, some more nuanced than others. Consider for example, the opening scene in which a vampire girl allows the sun to touch her because she doesn't want to be a child for eternity, or the Starbucks-like coffee establishment that has substituted blood for cream, or the advancements the vampires have developed to protect against "sunburn." The degree to which I became engrossed in this surreal, well-considered world allowed me to overlook problems like the limited adrenaline in the action sequences, the uninspired lead performance, and an unplugged hole at the end (involving Bromley's daughter). The Spierigs evidently have a fondness for the macabre. This is their second film; their debut, which didn't reach these shores, was called Undead. In an era when the vampire concept has become marginalized by writers and movie-makers principally concerned with cashing in on a payday and promoting necrophilia, it's refreshing to discover directors who return to the old school concepts as an inspiration for something different in some ways from what we're accustomed to.

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