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Entries in Daybreakers [2010] (1)

Saturday
Jan092010

Daybreakers (2010)

The Sun Also Rinses

I just read an article about how Michael and Peter Spierig’s Daybreakers is one of three new films that are taking aim at dethroning Avatar as the current box office champion. There’s no way in hell that’ll happen. Avatar is a cultural juggernaut, having captured the imaginations of millions of people worldwide, while Daybreakers is the millionth serving of vampire-flavored pop candy to hit in just over a year (thanks, Twilight). But there is a legitimate financial discussion to be had regarding these two films in that Avatar cost more than any other film to produce, and Daybreakers is very obviously a low-budget picture that was lucky to get a theatrical release—even in the dead zone of January. Fortunately, the Spierig brothers realized that a filmmaker’s best investment is not in computer effects, but in the screenplay.

Set in the year 2019 following a vampire outbreak that has brought the human race to the brink of extinction, Daybreakers centers on a hematologist named Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke). He’s a vampire in a world where vampirisim is no longer special; people still go to work and order over-priced lattes in subway stations—the only difference is that they’re immortal and prefer Type-O to soymilk. Edward works for the Bromley Pharmaceutical Corporation, whose president (Sam Neill) tasks him with developing a blood substitute that will sustain the population once the last human has been drained. Edward sympathizes with the humans’ plight and falls in with a small band of renegades who themselves want to find a solution to protect their species.

If this sounds like the setup to a half-dozen other “enemy of the state” movies, it is; Daybreakers treads very familiar ground. The key difference is that the Spierigs, who wrote and directed the picture, have followed in Quentin Tarantino’s footsteps by throwing all of he best elements from their favorite action movies and vampire stories into a narrative vat and tweaking the recipe; the result is a smart, briskly paced movie that delivers both good jump scares and great ideas. The Spierigs pay tribute to the first two-thirds of The Matrix (before it devolved into a really boring stunt show), Equilibrium, Dark City, Day of the Dead, and Children of Men—all of which dazzled audiences with action as well as solid stories and interesting characters.

What I love about this story is the texture the Spierigs bring to the vampire mythos and the ways in which they follow the lore out to its logical conclusion. Vampire society is inundated by sexy advertising for teeth whitening services and shielded cars that allow one to drive around during the day. As the blood supply dwindles, the vampire population begins to devolve from wealthy consumers into hideous, bat-like “under dwellers”; yes, the monstrous forms that are often regarded as the “cool” incarnations of vampires in most movies are the homeless, crazy derelicts of Daybreakers (there’s even a vampire army of humvee-driving soldiers who hunt under dwellers and humans alike). Another nice touch is that there’s not a high council or brotherhood of thousand-year-old vampires that Ultimately Must Be Stopped; in this universe, vampirism began as a blood disease—which is why, I think, it only took ten years for immortality and super-strength to become mundane characteristics. The synthetic blood storyline is the film’s greatest surprise, and I’ll leave it for you to discover; suffice it to say, we’re presented with an idea that I’m sure will pop up in vampire stories for generations to come.

I may be putting this movie over a bit too much. While parts of it are perfect, there are a few things that could have stood to be left out. First, I’m getting really, really tired of the “noble” vampire that doesn’t drink human blood. It was a cool idea once, but nowadays it seems the rabbit and pig populations of most vampire stories are in more danger than that of the humans. I’ll give Edward in Daybreakers a bit of a pass, though, because we’re shown just how much the decision affects him. What is unforgivable is a sub-plot involving one of Edward’s lab-mates who devolves from semi-interesting-character-with-potential into puppet-of-the-plot; it’s clear that the Spierigs hit a block with this guy, as he disappears from the story and pops up twice near the end in two developments that stink of desperation. These and the awkward staging of a couple of scenes are minor detractions from an otherwise sterling effort.

Those concerns aside, I urge you to check out Daybreakers in the theatre. There are a number of story points and characters that I haven’t even mentioned because I wouldn’t dream of spoiling them. Michael and Peter Spierig have taken their shot at the big time, employing wonderful practical effects, solid actors, and enough brains and passion to make them, potentially, the Coen Brothers of genre films. Daybreakers may not be a blockbuster, and will likely vanish in James Cameron’s big blue shadow, but it is the superior picture.