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Non-Review Review: Daybreakers

It’s great when film makers find something original enough to play with. Daybreakers takes an intriguing little snippet most of us have probably had and dismissed while watching a cheap vampire film – “what would happen if the vampires won and became the dominant species?” – and stretches it out to a two-hour film. It’s a movie that’s bristling with all sorts of witty ideas, but the problem is that it never really takes the opportunity to lift itself out of the “trashy B-movie” category of vampire and futuristic military films. While there are some great notions and concepts at play here, they aren’t executed with a hint of finesse, instead played with the sort of skill you traditionally find in a hackneyed slasher movie. Which is a damn shame, because when the movie hits the right buttons, it really works.

Blood work...

The movie is set a decade in the future. Vampires are the dominant life form on the planet, with humans hunted or being used as food supply. However, there’s a blood shortage occurring. Like some strange mixture of oil and crack cocaine, the fact that the creatures will eventually run out of food effectively spells the end of vampire civilisation, compounded by the fact that blood withdrawal leads to vampires feeding on themselves… which leads to mutations – unpleasant mutations.

Edward Dalton is a haemotologist – a blood doctor – who works for a large blood company, trying to find a way out of the impending crisis. It could be a substitute for blood, or even a cure for vampirism. That would remove the dependency on human blood, but would also bring back mortality. His brother hunts humans for the army, bringing back bottles of exotic blood from his excursions, and his boss realises that a blood substitute simply means the wealthy will be willing to pay more for “the real deal”.

The movie has any number of ingenius little quirks. There are signs indicating school crossing between 2am-3am in the morning. There’s a newspaper retrospective on ten years of vampirism, looking back at the vampire bat which started it all, with a friendly nod to the cheesy Hammer films of old – in fact, the devolved vampire forms (what with the point ears and wings) resemble the campy and crude versions of the creatures glimpsed in many a cheap schlock film. The movie even opens with a wonderful short vignette of what it must be like for those “turned” as children, living forever inside a child’s body. And we get a wonderful idea of how companies (specifically car companies) will adapt to serve new clients’ needs (with a “daytime mode”). I personally loved the small suggesting that vampiric animals burning up in daylight were now a leading source of forest fires.

The problem is that, despite all these wonderful little bits, the movie never really adds up. The action scenes feel corny (particularly a car chase about halfway through), the plot beats are ridiculously conventional and the ending is strikingly convenient. One would imagine that, having worked so hard on the little elements, a solid supporting structure would be no problem to the Speirig Brothers, serving as writers and directors. Instead, such bland futurist vistas are presented more with the sleak finish of Resident Evil, rather than the grim nihilism of Blade Runner. The action scenes feature more cuts than a vampire’s idea of a light nibble, jumping back-and-forth, never comfortable. Powerful moments are overwhelmed with slow motion and heavy music. And there’s a tendency to go for cheap gorn – for example, the response of the test subject to the first blood substitute or the ‘feeding time’ towards the end of the film.

The weirdest aspect of the production, however, is the bizarre way it attempts to combine pseudo-science with more religious conceptions of vampires. Although these creatures have placed their faith in science to save them – what with laboratories working around the clock and a mass feeding system created – they are undoubtedly more than meer science. The movie gives the creatures wonderful supernatural attributes – they do not cast reflections, for example, and they brilliantly explode when staked – and refuses to treat its version of vampirism as an infection (although the terms ‘treat’ and ‘cure’ are used repeatedly throughout the film, the methods ultimately employed are far from scientific), yet still casts its lead character as a scientist. It prevents the movie from quite coming together.

The cast is a mixed back. Sam Neill, Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe are all fine actors who are capable of damn fine work if the situation calls for. Unfortunately, they’re all solidly middle-of-the-road here. It doesn’t help that the dialogue isn’t particularly well crafted, but they still aren’t terrible. You won’t leave the film with a better opinion of any of them, but you shouldn’t depart with a lesser one either.

Daybreakers is that kid at school who was also told ‘must try harder’. It’s clear that the brains are there, but the temptation to just lazily offer regurgitated examples of other work and refusal to solidly support these ideas drag them down. Very little about the movie is outright terrible, it just feels bland. Which is a shame, because the concept is exciting enough that it shouldn’t ever feel bland. Despite a lot of care and thought put into the world itself, Daybreakers ultimately suffers from being too conventional a B-movie.

4 Responses

  1. I do like Ethan so much, what an underrated actor but I’m not valiant enough to venture into this…

    • Yep, it’s a bit of a mess. Whatever happened to Ethan? He was like “the man” for high quality dramatic work in the nineties and then… he just vanished in the mid-noughties. Sure there are odd traces of him to be found (Before Sunrise/Sunset), but where’s his next Training Day or Gattaca?

  2. I like the idea of the movie but I think they, like you mentioned, could’ve gone fruther into it made it better in many ways. I liked the originality of it and after all that Twilight junk it was good to see the original traits of vampires (no reflection, can’t go in the sunlight, and the infamous wooden stakes). But ironically they named the main character Edward -.-

    • Yep, I admire the B-movie-ness – no reflections, stakes, sunlight – but it jsut didn’t fit together well. There were, however a lot of interesting ideas at the core, just not fully thought out or explored. Ah well.

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