Mark Reviews Movies

DAYBREAKERS

2  Stars (out of 4)

Director: Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig

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

MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, language and brief nudity)

Running Time: 1:38

Release Date: 1/8/10


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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 10, 2010

A world comprised mostly of vampires would have to resemble the appearance of a film noir, wouldn't it? It just makes sense, doesn't it? The opening act of Daybreakers, from writer/directors the Spierig Brothers (Michael and Peter), imagines just such a world with that kind of a visual sensibility.

The vampires of the 2019 world have overtaken it, leaving only about five percent of the human population. Human blood is about to disappear. Some have started looking for a substitute, while others simply believe that there will always be blood. To test out the possibility of a political metaphor, I kept wanting to substitute the mentions of blood with oil, but trust me, it won't get you too far.

Daybreakers is very much a movie about its surface value. The introduction takes advantage of the nightly exteriors and gloomy interiors, highlighting the yellows of the undeads' eyes, the whites of their lateral incisors, and the red of the blood that nourishes them, making us feel that, yes, this is what a world run by vampires would feel like.

The plot concerns Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), a hematologist for a corporation that wants to solve the blood crisis. His work with blood substitutes has failed, the one time we see with explosive results (the darkly comic timing of violent reaction against "I feel fine" and "Ow" adds something to the predictable outcome).

Edward refuses to drink human blood, which annoys his brother Frankie (Michael Dorman), a soldier in the corporate army assigned to capture the surviving humans and harvest their blood for mass consumption. Returning from an assignment, Frankie offers Edward a bottle of pure blood, a difficult commodity to come across in a world where coffee shops promise 20 percent of the red stuff in a cup of joe.

In spite of his aversion, Edward works for Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), a literal blood-sucking corporate monster, who wants to horde the remaining blood supply for the highest-paying customers and let the rest feed on the hoped-for substitute. Meanwhile, blood-related crimes are soaring, and a new mutation of vampires, called "sub-siders," has begun to rise after some of the population has resorted to feeing on other vampires.

The noir look and feel of the beginning of the movie isn't just aesthetically appealing but also tonally appropriate for this world on the brink of collapse. There is never a wink or a nudge in the handling of the material, which treats such threats as daylight very seriously. There are ads for pedestrian subways, Uncle Sam reminding folks to report all humans, and the joys of driving in the daytime, as long as your car comes equipped with heavily tinted windows and cameras to show where you're going.

These little details help to shape the straightforward presentation of a vampiric land and lend it just enough authenticity. The Spierigs did their homework here, and that attention shows.

Just as soon as we've started to revel in and buy into it all, though, the movie comes out of the shadow and into the sun, and it begins to look less inviting. Edward becomes involved with a group of human survivors, led by Audrey (Claudia Karvan) and Lionel (Willem Dafoe), also known as "Elvis" and a former vampire. The story's shift from a unique spin on making supernatural lore real into a typical battle between good and evil isn't too subtle.

Edward and the humans become the subject of an expected hunt by Bromley and his minions, which leads to car chases and shoot-outs, which further leads to questions about how a plain, old wooden stake to the heart can have such explosive effects on the vampires, how the sunlight can cure vampirism even after we see it kill off some of them, and how sun-treated blood is so good/bad (depending on your perspective) for the blood-thirsty.

The movie sets up these rules but without the care of its earlier ones. Those were about creating atmosphere, while these are entirely to move the plot forward. Once their script gets into autopilot, the Spierigs' distinct concept turns into a fairly ordinary one.

Underneath it all, though, is an understanding of what a society on the verge of tumbling from within will do. There's an increase in violent uprisings, a mass execution of "sub-siders," and the needs of the individual start to hold precedence over all, but the movie's focus on appearance hinders these thematic ramifications from hitting home. An orgy of bloody, ironic transformation near the end is clever but, again, means little else.

Daybreakers is, ultimately, a missed opportunity. After taking such pains to establish a dying world, it's a shame the Spierig brothers are so intent to kill it off.

Copyright 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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