Saturday, May 29, 2010

Blogorium Review: Daybreakers

Much to my surprise, Daybreakers is a very good, mostly serious vampire movie. I don't really know why, but I thought based on the trailers that it was going to be very silly or corny and stupid; a kind of Underworld mentality crossed with the vampire society from the first Blade movie. Fortunately, it's nothing like that, and better still, it's less tonally messy than Michael and Peter Spierig's previous film Undead. While it's not quite a Thirst or a Let the Right One In, I fully recommend you check out Daybreakers, as it is a damn solid film that manages to tell a different kind of vampire story, and even manages to add to the lore instead of pick and choose (ahemTwilightahem).

Set in the not-too-distant 2019, Daybreakers is the story of a world post-vampire plague, a world where the Wesley Snipeses and James Woodses and William Ragsdales have failed miserably. Being that all of these vampires used to be humans, they do what people do best: adapt. Vampires work at night and sleep during the day, have subterranean travel systems if they need to do some daytime work, and have cars with clever window tinting and cameras to compensate for the lack of reflections in mirrors.

I actually like the idea of showing (not telling) the various little ways that vampire society adjusted to the change, and it actually makes sense considering the shifts we would probably making if forced to adapt to a nocturnal lifestyle. In short order, we're given a quick indicator of how the disease probably spread, the way that society operates (hint: not much differently than ours, except at night), and the class structure (hint also: really not that different, save for one important point I'll get to in a second). Clearly they're all pretty happy being vampires, as immortality cleaned up pesky diseases and smokers are allowed to go for it because, well, what's going to happen? Not much.

The downside to the world of Daybreakers is that the human population is rapidly dwindling, and so too is the blood supply that vampires so desperately need to survive. Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), a hematologist at Bromley Marks, is trying to synthesize a blood substitute with little to no avail, much to the concern of Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), who watches his existing blood supply diminish daily. Bromley's attitude towards finding a substitute is (mostly) from a business standpoint, but Edward has some genuine concern about humanity, in part because he was "turned" against his will by his brother Frankie (Michael Dorman).

When Edward accidentally runs a group of humans off the road and hides them from the police, their leader, Audrey Bennett (Claudia Karvan) introduces him to Lionel "Elvis" Cormac, a vampire-turned-human by circumstances Edward can't quite explain. With the possibility of a cure at hand, will a society accustomed to eternal life be willing to go back to mortality if it means solving the blood crisis? If the cure is as hard to crack as Edward thinks it is, will anyone try to change back?

The reason this matters at all is that Daybreakers sets up an interesting conundrum: if vampires go too long without drinking human blood, they begin to regress into feral, bat-like creatures. Early in the film viewers get a glimpse of blood-starved, homeless vampires, ignored by the upper class and two or three days away from posing a serious threat. When Frankie comes to visit Edward on his birthday ("I've turned 35 ten times now") with a bottle of human blood, an ensuing fight about ethics leaves shattered glass and blood on the wall, attracting the attention of a wandering feral vampire. The subsequent home invasion is handled in a way that's unnerving and a bit sad. It's clear that the bat-creature is just starving, and it's attacks on Edward and Frankie are instinctual rather than malevolent.

I enjoyed the way that Daybreakers doesn't go for silly or over the top most of the time. It tends to set things up in one direction (making you think that Audrey might be the long-missing human daughter of Bromley) only to head another way (introducing her in a later sequence which is tangentially related to the main story). Many of the problems that I had with Undead came from the fact that it was never clear what kind of movie it wanted to be: was it a horror-comedy? A zombie film? An alien invasion film? Daybreakers manages to be a serious (and entertaining) movie about vampires that doesn't treat them as disposable fodder for some badass hunter or as a prop to tell teen romances or sell books.

The one issue I had with the film came from an initially broad performance from Willem Dafoe, who plays Elvis a little broader than anybody else in the movie. This is not to say that Ethan Hawke or Sam Neill are playing wholly restrained mopey vampires - there is actually some nuance to both characters - but Elvis rolls into the film singing "Burning Love" and flinging around a southern twang that really sticks out initially. Eventually he settles down, but I couldn't help but feel like Dafoe was more like a character from John Carpenter's Vampires than the Spierig brothers' Daybreakers.

Still, it's a very minor complaint. I had really expect Daybreakers to be some goofy, over-serious film about vampires contemplating mortality, a maudlin extension of Interview with the Vampire or The Hunger or something like that (both movies I like, by the way), but instead the Spierigs take the material seriously, aren't afraid to play both the quiet and vicious sides of vampire lore, and ultimately deliver a story that's fresh and fun to watch. These vampires aren't just cool or scary, and they don't spend all of their time pissing and moaning about living forever (in fact, the film opens with a child vampire committing suicide because she'll never grow up). Much like Thirst, the film takes a concept that could be pretty trite and goes in different directions with it, and I for one was pleased with the results.

Now it's just a matter of conveying it to the folks sick to death of The Vampire Diaries...

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