No matter what you make of Edward Cullen’s angst over it, vampirism is—at base—about consumption. Enchantment and seduction (and glistening skin) are only a form of marketing: when the consumed feel enthralled, well, they’re just less worried about becoming lunch. The reason to suck is to survive, however undeadly, and the reason to be sucked is to die, or to become undead, that is, one of them. And once we are them, the choice is easy: everyone sucks to survive. The problem is finding someone to suck.
Daybreakers gets this, in spades. The vampires in Michael and Peter Spierig’s new film have made so many of humans into them that they’re starving. It’s 2019 and the un-synthetic blood supply, drained from humans hung from spires inside industrial “farms,” will be done in a month (see also: Blade or, in other variations on the theme, Coma, Soylent Green, and The Matrix). Working against this clock, hematologist and reluctant vampire Edward (Ethan Hawke), seeks a mass-producible substitute, urged on by the Corporate Dick who employs him, Bromley (Sam Neill). While Bromley Edward has his own reasons for pursuing the alternative, as he hopes to help humans repopulate and even make them irrelevant to vampires’ existence.
Edward’s unhappiness about being a vampire is rooted in this need to consume. He’s been well paid by the company, so he can afford to live in fine home and drive an expensive vehicle, all outfitted to keep out sunlight: sheltered walkways, tinted windows, armored blinds, and hyper-sensitive security systems to keep out marauding “subsiders.” These would be the extra-bad vampires, those forced by poverty and lack of food to cannibalize each other and even themselves. Apparently, sucking vampire blood makes vampires look like inbred monsters, complete with wings, pointy ears, and especially ugly fangs.
The subsiders’ hideousness is revealed in an early scene, where one breaks into Edward’s fine home. He and his soldier-boy brother, Frankie (Michael Dorman), take on the intruder in a décor-disrupting, elaborately bloody battle, while also revealing the brothers’ basic opposition. Frankie likes destruction and he’s good at it. Edward is wily and self-sustaining, but almost in spite of himself. He won’t drink human blood if he can help it (sustaining himself with bottled animal blood), hates being a vampire, and resents the whole living-forever business, precisely because it comes at the expense of the human race. He wants more than anything to discover a cure for his (and Frankie’s) circumstances.
Edward gets his chance when he meets a band of resistance-fighter humans, led by the crossbow-toting Audrey (Claudia Karvan) and a former vampire who goes by the name of Elvis (Willem Dafoe). Per his name, Elvis’ existence is revealed to Edward like a religious experience. The camera keeping a distance on his shadowed form and gnarled visage, the ex-human-ex-vampire almost hums: “I was like you once. I ain’t no more.” First smitten and then buoyed by the prospect of becoming human again (and pushed into a quick decision by the arrival of military vampires with guns), Edward sets to replicating the accidental and frankly harrowing conditions of Elvis’ end-and-resurrection (recounted in a hazy, disjointed, weirdly poetic flashback—one that reminds you just how resourceful the Spierig brothers can, demonstrated previously in their re-inventive zombie flick, Undead). With the end of the vampire’s resources looming, a battle commences, setting the humans-and-wannabe-humans against the vampires.
Running everything, the vampires have become models of ruthless corporatism and shortsighted consumption. As they await their fates, pale-faced citizens chainsmoke on subway platforms and seek bloody concoctions from a barista in a circa-late-’ 40s soda jerk’s uniform. The retro effect is extended throughout the film’s polished brown surfaces, the filtered light, and the mostly easy moral conflict. Not only is Edward a humane human-lover (illustrated in his efforts to redeem his brother, no matter the latter’s brutishness), but Bromley is an inveterate villain, determined to locate his runaway human daughter Alison (Isabel Lucas) and turn her, so they can live forever together. (Their precise familial history remains unknown, but he’s a little too intimate in his desiring and no one mentions a mother, never a good sign.) That Alison has rejected her dad and especially his business outright only makes him more determined to force her compliance. In a word: icky.
The lack of moral complication is lamentable, for Daybreakers is otherwise a bracing antidote to the Twilight franchise’s ever-earnest, not-exactly chaste romance. Yes, it indulges in some hectic-seeming, spectacularly choreographed action, with chests exploding and fires burning, as well as offering gorgeous light-and-dark contrasts (see also: Near Dark, a most obvious antecedent). And yes, its slow-moving love story and cumbersome considerations of immortality’s existential pains are familiar. Still, Dafoe—always an unusual and hard-to-fix performative presence—may have found his ideal role as the rejuvenated undead, at once too-sincere and vaguely askew. Edward’s instant attraction to him seems just right.