Today’s cinema adventure: Daybreakers, a 2009 sci-fi/horror/action mash-up about a dystopian near-future in which an epidemic has turned most of the world’s population into vampires, and the remaining humans are farmed for their blood. Written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, it is elevated above the usual standard of B-grade schlock by the presence of an unusually distinguished cast, and features a slick and well-executed visual style enhanced by special creature effects from New Zealand’s Weta Workshop. It was met with fairly positive critical response upon its initial release, but despite the presumably heightened appeal of its combined fantasy genres, its box office performance was somewhat disappointing, owing largely to its competition with the blockbusters Avatar and Sherlock Holmes.
Set in 2019, Daybreakers depicts a world not unlike our own, a place where high-tech convenience and corporate domination rule the day; the fact that most of its inhabitants are vampires makes little difference- modern technology ensures the uninterrupted flow of culture by providing protection from sunlight, and industrial farming procedures provide the required supply of human blood, while the military takes care of hunting down and capturing the few remaining mortal survivors. The rewards of embracing vampirism- immortality, superhuman strength, enhanced senses- seemingly outweigh any troubling moral concerns, at least for most, and the only real problem is the dwindling supply of blood- an ongoing issue which has reached the level of an international crisis as the non-vampiric representatives of the human race have reached near-extinction. While corporate experts race to find a synthetic substitution, rationing and poverty have begun to take their toll by causing the malnourished to “subside,” morphing them into primal, instinct-driven monsters who terrorize and feed on their own kind. In the midst of this dire state of affairs, Edward- a blood expert whose ethical beliefs lead him to sympathize with humans- becomes involved with a group of mortal fugitives that have found a cure for vampirism, and he joins them in their quest to save humanity. The powers that be, however, have no interest in a cure, so Edward and his new companions must fight to stay alive until they can find a way to spread their miraculous discovery and reclaim the future of the human race.
The premise is undeniably intriguing, though it clearly requires some serious suspension of disbelief for viewers beyond the age of, say, 14. The metaphorical possibilities are provocative; Daybreakers could be viewed as an allegory for corporate greed and its ruthless bleeding of the underclasses, or as an indictment of humanity for its merciless over-exploitation of natural resources, or simply as a parable about the conflict between the dark and light sides of human nature. Implicit as these ideas may be in the scenario, however, the Brothers Spierig have included little, if any, subtextual emphasis on anything beyond the necessary psychological conflicts of the story, such as the desire of a corporate chief executive to bring his resistant daughter into the vampiric fold or the struggle for reconciliation between Edward and his military brother, who converted him unwillingly to his undead state. There are unavoidable parallels, too, between the vampiric “subsiders” and the homeless population of our own world- viewed as undesirables, they are feared and persecuted, a reminder of the larger social problem of which they are a symptom and of the potential fate which threatens the entire civilization. Here too, the film’s creators have chosen to leave the obvious comparisons in the background, instead treating this element as just another complication in their plot.
With all this possible social commentary inherent in the material, one might expect the filmmakers to find creative ways to explore it within the framework of the narrative, particularly since their screenplay was an original work, unencumbered by the need to adhere to an existing storyline; but throughout their movie, opportunities for such resonance are ignored, and the script contents itself with a reliance on melodramatic confrontation and goofy one-liners, setting up its conflicts sufficiently to allow for dramatic tension and to provide the justification for its climactic bloodbath, but leaving larger and more significant questions unasked and unanswered. In essence, the Spierigs have made an extended chase movie, spiced up with the trappings of a sci-fi/horror fantasy, and everything else within it exists merely to serve its crowd-pleasing purpose.
This is not to say that Daybreakers is without redeeming quality; indeed, its lack of pretension might be its saving grace, keeping it from becoming one of those preachy, self-important epics that gives lip service to a politically-correct stance while asking us to believe in a patently absurd premise (such as the movie that buried this one at the box office, the obscenely successful Avatar). The Spierigs keep it simple, confining their socio-political observation to the world of the film, and incorporating only as much of it as is needed to set the stage for their story. Unfortunately, that story is not a particularly compelling one- the protagonist is something of a wimp, and the developments which lead to the film’s resolution are even more far-fetched than its premise- but it manages to be entertaining enough; and because Daybreakers does not take itself too seriously, we can allow ourselves to enjoy the gratuitous violence and gore that we ultimately expect from any vampire movie. There is quite a lot of it, actually, increasing in frequency and intensity as the plot progresses, until it culminates in a climax dripping with cathartic carnage. On this level, at least, Daybreakers does not disappoint.
Besides the guilty pleasure of bodies being exploded, incinerated, beheaded and otherwise torn to bits- justifiable because they are, mostly, vampires, after all- there are some other features worth attention in Daybreakers. Most noticeable, perhaps, is its cool, slick visualization of a not-too-distant future marked by a sterile, streamlined elegance in architecture and interior design, and rendered in a muted palette of steely grays and icy blues by cinematographer Ben Nott. The vampiric mutants, debased by their malnutrition into anthropomorphic creatures (which look decidedly similar to the notorious “Bat Boy” of tabloid fame), are effectively creepy and pathetic at the same time, and well-executed by their aforementioned creators at Weta. As for the acting, well, clearly nobody expects Oscar-caliber performances from a movie like Daybreakers, but that said, the presence of a particularly high-grade trio of actors in the key roles- Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill- helps to elevate it from the level of a run-of-the-mill formula thriller to something at least a little more engaging. Dafoe in particular deserves credit, in his role as a former-vampire-turned-human savior, for being able to utter some truly ridiculous dialogue with enough conviction to make it seem believable; and there is a nicely subdued and grounded performance from the less-familiar Claudia Karvan as the mortal female refugee who brings Hawke (as Edward) into the cause and becomes a possible love interest. It’s also notable that she takes an active and heroic role in the proceedings instead of being presented as the typical passive woman usually seen in such male-centric adventures- though she does, ultimately, have to be rescued, it’s also true that Hawke’s character does too, and more than once, at that.
Daybreakers makes an attractive package, with its skillful technical and visual elements providing considerable distraction, and the work of its competent players ensuring that we can stay involved in its plot; but that plot is all-too-familiar despite the painfully clever conceits in which it is framed, and though it manages to grow on you as it goes, in the end it offers nothing more than a mildly interesting 90-minutes-plus of entertaining fluff. The rich potential of its scenario seems to beg for further development, but goes unexplored, creating half-formed thoughts and ideas about its implications that are quickly left in the wake of its action agenda; the result, though not exactly a bad movie, is not exactly a good one, either. Rather, it’s just another gimmicky thriller that capitalizes on the surging craze for vampires, and though it’s a well-made and fairly likable one, the sense of missed opportunity makes it very disappointing, indeed.