Michael Spierig/Peter Spierig
Ethan Hawke (Edward Dalton), Sam Neill (Charles Bromley), Claudia Karvan (Audrey Bennett), Michael Dorman (Frankie Dalton), Willem Dafoe (Lionel “Elvis” Cormac)
“Humans were offered a chance to assimilate but they refused. Therefore, they are enemies of the state and will be captured and farmed for blood supply.” – Senator Roger Westlake
Daybreakers is great; it is a wonderful, special, one-of-a-kind movie and I love it every time I see it. I know that’s getting ahead of myself since this is a review but I’ve loved Daybreakers from first viewing and I long to sing its praises whenever I get the chance. So for those unaware of this film, the elevator pitch is that it’s a movie about a world where a virus has turned most of the world into vampires. The vampires, now the ruling class who exploit the remaining humans for food are running low on blood.
Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is a scientist working on a blood substitute to try and stop human hunting while his boss Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) simply wants it so that the human race has time to repopulate to be exploited again. But soon Edward runs across some human rebels who have found a cure in a former vampire played by Willem Dafoe. Dafoe becomes Edward’s Dafriend and they set out to stop the vampires from taking over.
The plot sounds like nothing special and it really isn’t. Edward is a middling hero who feels incidental to about 99% of the plot, Dafoe is great but underused, Claudia Karven comes from the Jessica Biel school of adequate-but-boring-vampire-movie-heroines, and the ending yields no actual result simply restoring a status quo and leaving the world in a worse state than it was prior to the beginning of the film. And yet none of this matters.
The Spierig Brothers first came on my radar when I blind-bought a DVD at Best Buy (back in those halcyon days when I blind-bought movies and shopped at Best Buy) called Undead. It was a great movie with a smart twist at the end that I appreciated and I very much wanted to see more of them. When I read in Fangoria (back in those halcyon days when I used to subscribe to Fangoria) that they were doing a new movie and that it starred Sam Neill (who I was a huge fan of at the time thanks to having recently seen Dead Calm and The Omen III) I was intrigued and delighted.
Daybreakers could have been a dud, it could’ve been Ultraviolet, but it wasn’t. As the film opens up we get that sleek dystopian future that evokes sci-fi thrillers from the 90s and early 2000s like Equilibrium and Gattaca (later this aesthetic would be applied to Surrogates and In Time.) The Spierigs jump into this concept wholeheartedly imagining every facet of vampire day-to-day life from ads and propaganda, infrastructure (such as a series of underground tunnels dubbed the subwalk or cars with deeply tinted windows and onboard cameras equipped for daytime driving), to health and environment (lab animals are also vampires and there are mentions of vampire animals causing forest fires when they’re caught in the open at dawn.)
The vampires’ eyes glow in the dark, they have no reflections but their clothes still show. Vampires who don’t drink blood start to take on the appearance of Count Orlock from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and eventually turn into crazed bat creatures called subsiders. This would be an interesting sci-fi yarn but The Spierigs are horror directors so they match that slick Gattaca aesthetic to a gonzo, gory, nu-western spirit of 90s vampire films like Vampires and From Dusk Till Dawn. The moment when the movie goes from being an also-ran to something special happens when a test subject explodes like a water balloon filled with strawberry jam. And if you haven’t seen this movie before then I must say the feeding frenzy scene is truly amazing.
I also have to give props to Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe. Dafoe is great, oozing that weird Willem Dafoe charm in a character that seems to have been written for him and him alone. Elvis’ one-liners, his mannerisms, his kickass crossbow/double-barrell shotgun all seem to have been designed for Dafoe and I love everything about him.
Similarly, Sam Neill’s Bromley is a delightful wealthy business type. There’s nothing unique about the character but Neill makes him charasmatically evil, even adding a bit of pathos when we discover that Bromley was dying of cancer prior to being bitten. It really is a shame that Neill and Dafoe never get to interact as I’m sure it would be a sight to behold. Ultimately the film’s biggest flaw is that its best performers don’t have enough to do.
It may sound like I’m ragging on Ethan Hawke, but I’m not. Hawke is as good as he’s ever been and he’s a fine actor, his character is just the sort of bland white-bread cipher that protagonists generally are.
Unfortunately, the movie’s parts are a lot better than its whole but they’re frequent and good enough to make up for the lack of strength on the plot’s part. It really is a shame that the movie never finds something interesting for the subsiders to do, it feels like the third act was a replacement for something much more spectacular that would’ve cost too much money and the ending really is too cheerful for what ultimately means nothing. But who cares? We don’t get movies like this very often. Treasure this one.
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