– Summary –
Director : The Spierig Brothers
Year Of Release : 2009
Principal Cast : Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Claudia Karvan, Sam Neill, Michael Dorman, Vince Colosimo, Isabel Lucas.
Approx Running Time : 91 Minutes
Synopsis: When vampires have become the dominant species on Earth, and humans are reduced to a food source, what happens when humans face extinction and the food supply dries up? That’s the question posed in Daybreakers: a vampiric blood scientist seeks to create a substitute liquid to use instead of blood, only to end up discovering that vampirism can be cured completely.
What we think : Thoughtful, well produced, entertaining vampire film that not only scares and enthralls but tickles the intelligence center of your brain in the meantime. A fascinating premise, handled with consummate skill by the two Aussie directors, Daybreakers is well worth your time.
I know, you read “vampires” on this review and your finger automatically hovered over the “close tab” function of your browser, ready to click that mouse were any hint of mention of show-pony werewolves or glitter emo vampires to come up. I wouldn’t have blamed you, considering the permeation vampire mythology has managed to carve into society’s frontal lobes in recent years. Damn you Stephenie Meyer. However, much like the awesome television series on HBO, True Blood, Daybreakers offers viewers a more cerebral take on the blood-sucker genre, instead of the hunky-tween-spunk-craptology we’ve been forced to endure since Twilight became the “phenomenon” it has. Daybreakers, an adult oriented vampire thriller, has the hallmarks of your traditional fang-toothed genre entry, yet remains strangely aloof in its use of said hallmarks, relying instead on character development and story tension to draw viewers in, instead of fancy visual effects. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of visual effects in Daybreakers to enjoy, it’s just that they’re not the focus. They’re the cream, delicately poised on top of the magnificent vampire gelato of which you really should take a mouthful.
Rubbish mixed-metaphors aside, Daybreakers is an interesting premise to say the least. In the film, vampires have become the dominant species on the planet, leaving humans a precious commodity for the one thing vampires need and cannot synthesize – blood. Human blood, long known as the main source of vampire strength and sustenance, is now farmed from living human subjects in pharmaceutical company Bromley Marks massive warehouse. However, as human numbers dry up, many clients of Bromley Marks are starting to pull their human donations out for their own, private use; a fact which exacerbates the problem. Charles (Sam Niell), the head of Bromely Marks, has seconded hematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) to create a synthetic substitute to human blood, hoping to corner the market and make billions from his starving clientele. Dalton, however, soon encounters a group of humans living in a refuge in the country, away from the protective veil of the city inhabited by the vampires, where they too seek the answer to vampirism. Dalton is taken by a mysterious woman, Audrey (Claudia Karvan) to meet Elvis Cormac (Willem Dafoe), a man who was once a vampire, but now walks in the sun and seems entirely human. Together, Dalton and Elvis try to replicate the incident that returned Elvis to his human state, since a cure is a vastly more valuable (and desired) commodity than a substitute blood creation. However, Charles decides that a cure isn’t in the best interest of his company, and so threatens to stop them at all costs.
I went into this film with absolutely no expectations at all, save the fact that I’d heard it had good word of mouth and was worth at least one watch. I’m pleased to say, the word of mouth was correct. Daybreakers is an inventive, scary, intelligent and well made vampire film, a far cry from the tween-centric drivel you’re still avoiding, and is actually a worthwhile entry into the genre. The Spierig Brothers, Michael and Peter, are best known for their earlier work Undead, one of those low-budget Peter-Jackson-Braindead-esque films that defies critical acclaim (or lack thereof) to actually be entertaining, and they’ve spent a great deal of time working on this films’ concept before even a shot was captured on camera. The story itself, from central premise to the characters and their arcs within the narrative, are, with the exception of Sam Neill’s Charles, interesting and well constructed. I mention the character of Charles because he, of all the major characters, to be the least creatively imaginative – he’s a bureaucrat pandering to his stockholders, and Neill plays this up to the hilt. I guess if you’re going to have an undead antagonist in the film, a vampiric bureaucrat is probably one of the more generic options available. Sam Neill is an excellent actor, and to be honest, his character here has an opportunity to grow and evolve, but the Spierig’s don’t let him. At least, not to my mind they didn’t.
Ethan Hawke, as Dalton, seems to have channeled his Gattaca personality here, and puts over a smooth, subtle, effective portrayal of a
man vampire caught between his affliction and the cure, and to what lengths he’d go to to achieve that cure, even in the face of his own death. Hawke isn’t an actor I associate with overacting, in fact, I’d go as far as to say that often I find him quite wooden and cool in his screen performances. That’s a personal impression, though, which is going to be different for each of us. That said, here his restrained style of performance actually assists the story’s subtle nuances. Dalton is a figure in flux, his torment at being a vampire and having to drink human blood (although, as it turns out, he resists human blood as long as possible) shown against his fascination with, and desire to return to, his human past. His meeting with Elvis opens his eyes, and it’s at this moment that Hawke is at his strongest – from there, he takes on a more action-hero strut, and while this in itself isn’t a problem, it does tend to jar slightly with his behavior prior to this. Willem Dafoe delivers yet another great performance, lacking the over-performed sneering style of past efforts for a more humane one here. Elvis has been to the other side, and returned, and his energy to “cure” the world of vampires is tempered with the fear of them discovering him, which heightens the tension between both Elvis and Dalton. Dafoe delivers a solid performance.
Local Aussie talent (this film was made in Queensland’s Roadshow studios on the Gold Coast, and eagle eyed viewers may spot a few “household” faces in amongst the crowds!) Claudie Karvan, who appeared with Hugh Jackman in Paperback Hero, and Vince Colosimo (who appeared in Chopper, and Body of Lies for Ridley Scott) provide adequate support in their roles, Karvan as the female leader of the “human resistance”, and Colosimo as Dalton’s lab partner Chris. Fellow Aussie actress Isabel Lucas, who appeared as the Decepticon Pretender Alice, in Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, plays Charles’s estranged daughter Alison, and while the character is a small part, her impact on Charles, and on us, is profoundly moving. Lucas isn’t a strong enough actress to really nail the part, but it’s hardly a problem in the overall scheme. Am I cutting the film a little too much slack? Perhaps. I feel as if I’m being too kind to a production made locally – am I biased if I think we do it better here in Australia? We made The Matrix, for God’s sake. Then again, we also made The Matrix Revolutions, so sod off, argumentors…
Directorially, I was somewhat surprised at the level of style and obvious film making skill the Spierig Brothers displayed with their sophomore effort. I guess I shouldn’t have been, but I was. They handled this film like they’d been directing for a hundred years. Editing choices, framing and shot selection, as well as pacing and the arresting use of visual effects to drive the story are all nuanced and balanced with a commercially viable sensibility – this film was made their way, with a genre audience in mind, yet feels for all the world like a regulation action/adventure outing from a major Hollywood studio – which isn’t a bad thing, not in this day and age of cut-and-paste cinema coming from the US film industry. The film belies its genre roots to deliver a genuinely enthralling, tense and intelligently analogous narrative, bound up in the violence and blood of a vampire films’ obligatory gore. Daybreakers is highly entertaining, if only for those seeking a more highbrow vampire-themed entertainment than your bog-standard Twilight guff. It’s a film that asks a number of questions, not overt narrative ones, but subtle, subtextual ones, and I tend to think that if you don’t like the answers, then this world is in even bigger trouble than we thought. Daybreakers is excellent.