Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Claudia Karvan, Sam Neill, Michael Dorman
Daybreakers is an interesting film in the latest race to get vampires on-screen, fairly unassuming and yet with a debonair style in its own right. For a start, it moves away from the hyper-romantic, adolescent-friendly notion of the vampire, turning soppery on its head for a straight action flick. It also provides a nice twist within the genre, imagining a world in which vampires are the norm. A plague has infested the Earth, in the style of 28 Days Later, and the vampire bureaucracy live in a cold, muted world of darkness. The film opens like Blade Runner, with rain pelting down on a sleekly futuristic city, but its dim blue-grey look owes more to The Matrix.
The Spierig brothers embellish their world with nice little touches, including a coffee store that serves beverages ‘with 20% blood,’ and cars that operate in ‘daylight driving mode.’ Their colour palette is attractive and effective, the brilliant glare of the Sun suddenly piercing the subdued dystopia of vampire city, and the stark red of human blood casting a ghoulish, even queasy, pallor over the film. As humans are rounded up and ‘harvested’ to feed the undying vampires, it becomes clear that blood is a metaphor for something. But what? News reports constantly relay the crises erupting over blood shortages, and one vampire tells another, “We are starving.” Oil? Our need to exploit other humans? It remains murky what link the Spierig brothers want us to make with this representation.
Daybreakers also has a good cast, with Willem Dafoe solid as always, Sam Neill reptilian as the bad guy, and a surprisingly solid turn from Ethan Hawke. Hawke is not particularly gifted as an actor, and I’ve never forgiven him for his atrocious mangling of Hamlet’s monologues in Michael Almereyda’s 2000 adaptation, but his gaunt features make a great vampire. He is desultory and sulky, looking vaguely worried for much of the time, but his sallow skin and general reticence project a kind of fanged coldness that is convincing. Although this is meant to be the future, Hawke’s character is named Edward Dalton, a peculiarly Victorian sounding name exacerbated by the black top hat he always wears.
Unfortunately, the film shows preponderance to certain action cliches, and is unable to find a balance between characterisation and its thrill sequences. These are technically accomplished, and some of them quite entertaining, such as the obligatory car chase. This is, of course, staged in daylight, so Hawke must be especially wary to avoid those neat round circular holes left by bullets, or risk shrivelling up and burning as per vampire lore. Others, however, feel superfluous, such as a predictable pseudo-exploitation scene of a corpse exploding in a medical facility, and a winged vampire invading Dalton’s home, included so there can be a decapitation.
The gore gets steadily harder and more constant towards the end, as things turn to chaos and the story wavers. As expected, Hawke’s band of humans (and ex-vampires) find a dubious ‘cure’ to the vampire plague, but the film’s real finale arrives with a burst of gunfire from a bunch of soldiers. This is a forgettable ending: Hawke and Dafoe are all but abandoned for stock carnage, and it’s hard to distinguish who is who as the camera goes into flashy jump cuts and hyper-editing mode.
If the story of Daybreakers leaves something to be desired, it still offers enough of something new and darkly witty in its genre to be worthwhile. The iron-bar pace which the Spierig brothers helm it with keeps all its vampire pathology mostly exhilarating. It leaves little lasting impression and, to be honest, could have been a lot stronger overall, but those in doubt should give Daybreakers a try; it’s often surprising how enjoyable it is.