A great number of film critics love to run down January as a quality movie dead zone. While the start of the year is usually filled with studio leftovers and dust collectors such as “Leap Year” (in theaters now!), the month has yielded its share of diamonds in the rough.
“Taken,” “Cloverfield,” “Notorious” and “Rambo” have all been recent January releases. Each of those films, while far from masterpieces, proved appealing in their own right to large audiences.
Which brings us to “Daybreakers.”
Lionsgate’s latest genre release – a mix of action, horror and science fiction -- has a lot going for it, namely an intriguing cast and what seems like a can’t-miss hook. What’s more in step, after all, with current box-office trends than a near-future sci-fi vampire tale? But on the way to Sleeper Hitsville, “Daybreakers” gets tripped up by a clichéd, B-movie plot and winds up a blood-spattered mess. The interesting questions the writer-directing duo The Spierig Brothers raise lose their impact as the movie struggles to balance the allegory, and the gory.
“Daybreakers” takes place 10 years in the future. A worldwide outbreak has turned the majority of people into vampires. In a role reversal sure to please farm animals everywhere, the remaining humans are either in hiding or being herded like cattle, harvested for their blood.
With the world’s blood supply rapidly dwindling, panic is spreading. Homeless, starving vampires –mutating sub-species are growing in number and terrorizing suburbia. Martial Law is imminent as authorities work towards a solution.
A hematologist named Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) may be humanity’s last hope. Edward, a rarity among vampires who does not drink human blood and despises his status among the undead, is close to perfecting a blood substitute. He believes his substitute formula will solve the vampires’ hunger crisis and save what is left of the human race.
But he abandons the research after meeting up with a small group of human resistance fighters, led by an Elvis-quoting car buff (Willem Dafoe). Soon, Edward is the undead Richard Kimble, a Fugitive from justice, in a race against time to find an actual cure, punctuated with several scenes of astounding gore. Buckets of blood are literally splashed across the screen in “Daybreakers,” and many heads do indeed roll.
There are some impressive action scenes, including one daytime car chase that cleverly incorporates a vampire’s vulnerability to sunlight. And as mentioned, the gore factor is ratcheted up enough to satisfy the most bloodthirsty fan.
The 2019 of “Daybreakers” is dark even by Hollywood’s usual dystopian standards. As the sun rises, light-blocking windows go down everywhere. Subdivisions have ‘one hour until sunrise’ announcements. Coffee shops serve coffee with blood (and as supplies dwindle, the skim version). Because vampires can’t be out in the sun, city streets are abandoned in the daytime. Subwalks, underground tunnels, criss-cross the city so as to evade sunlight. School zones run from 2 to 3…AM!
But for all its intricate details and parallels to modern-day concerns, such as corporate greed and the plundering of natural resources, the perfunctory story at the center of the film is ultimately its biggest drawback. Yes, it touches on issues that are political hot buttons now, but only a glancing blow. We never get beneath the surface.
Hawke is compelling and sympathetic as Edward, but he portrays him with the brooding self-loathing that seems mandatory when playing the ‘good’ vampire role. As ruthless corporate titan Charles Bromley, Sam Neill is the vampire Gordon Gekko. His character gives the undead a bad name. Dafoe’s character, who may have the proof that a cure for vampirism exists, is the gung-ho rebel armed with heavy firepower and one-liners.
Those jokes often fall flat however. Trying to balance the pace of an action film with the scares of a horror movie is tough enough. Throw in humor and you have a recipe for taking the audience right out of the moment. That happens several times in “Daybreakers”, especially as the film builds toward its impossibly neat climax, and by neat I mean conveniently scripted. There is nothing neat about the bloodbath at the end of the film, rest assured. But the longer the movie goes on, the more the film seemed to get away from the filmmakers.
The Spierig brothers are avowed science fiction fans, and the evidence is clearer. There are traces of “I Am Legend,” “The Matrix” and even “Escape From New York” throughout the movie, to name just a few. There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by great sci-fi of course, but it should inspire new twists, different angles.
One of the more interesting aspects of the world of “Daybreakers” is why some people became vampires. Some chose to, others were forced. Bromley, the villain, embraces vampirism and its immortality. The ends justify the means for him. He doesn’t understand why his daughter doesn’t want to turn. We never really find out why, presumably because delving into that area of the story would have meant a few less chopped heads, and a little less blood spilled.
Too bad, because it may have given “Daybreakers” a bit more bite.