DAYBREAKERS is a film of glistening surfaces – modern architecture, billboards, automobiles – all lit in the subdued hues that “heaven to gaudy day denies.” Set mostly at night, this science-fiction-horror film shares some stylistic affinity with DARK CITY (1998), which also used a cinefantastique premise to justify taking old school film noir aesthetics to dazzling new extremes. From the opening montage of an empty city, awaiting the awakening of the vampirized populace, the film looks like a production designer’s dream, as the camera glides over city streets, bus stops, and advertisement posters, inviting us into this strange, new, yet oddly familiar world. It’s an effective strategy that seduces you into engaging with the film, but there is a pitfall: the ultra-cool world of night is so beguiling that one barely regrets the loss of daylight, robbing the the story (a quest to find a cure for vampirism) of at least some of its dramatic impetus. Fortunately, this is a small price to pay for enjoying the visual pleasures on display.
Basically a riff on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, DAYBREAKERSexpands upon a concept suggested by, but never fully explored in, Richard Matheson’s novel or its filmic adaptations: that of a vampire society. In this future, the majority of the Earth’s population has been transformed into blood-drinkers by a plague. The few remaining non-vampires are stored like the human batteries in The Matrix, slowly drained of their remaining drops of life, which are served in increasingly diluted portions at the equivalent of coffee bars. As the blood shortage grows more dire, hungry consumers begin to riot. Meanwhile Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), a scientist working for the world’s biggest blood supplier, works round the clock, searching for a cure. But does his boss, Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) really want a cure, or would he prefer to retain a permanently addicted customer-base, hopefully fed upon a synthesized substitute?
The plot runs on some fairly familiar fuel: Dalton abandons his company to form an alliance with an underground group of humans, one of whom, Lionel “Elvis” Cormac (Willem Dafoe) has mysteriously recovered from vampirism. Dalton’s former friends, family and allies think him a turncoat, and in a typical display of dramatic irony it is his brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) who is charged with bringing him back into the fold. Can Dalton find a cure; and even if he can, will the public be willing to surrender immortality? And if they do surrender, will it be without a bloody, climactic fight? (If you guessed no to the last question, you win.)
Fortunately, the plot mechanics are in the service of an intriguing idea. Taking a science fiction approach to the material, instead of focusing only on the horror of blood-drinking, writer-directors Michael and Peter Spierig use vampirism as a metaphor for capitalism. Without ever turning DAYBREAKERS into a simple-minded screed (a la the recent FURRY VENGEANCE), they use their story to offer satiric commentary on consumer culture and the corporate overlords the nuture and feed it. In a way, the film is less about the allure of immortality than it is about the laws of supply and demand, depleting natural resources until artificial ones must be used instead – at much higher cost, because they can be patented, and when the natural stuff is gone, the consumer has no choice but to buy the alternative, at whatever price.
Although the battle lines initially seem clearly drawn, the screenplay offers a few nice character touches that prevent the story from slipping into a simple “us versus them” scenario; these nods toward character development also help keep the drama alive, so that the film does not slip into being a thinly disguised anti-capitalist manifesto. Particularly touching is brother Frankie’s late revelation about what he vampirized his older brother (he was frightened by the thought of living on without him), which engenders unexpected sympathy for a previously one-note Judas character, so that we actually feel a pang of regret over his ultimate fate.
In keeping with DAYBREAKERS’ film noir style, the performances tended to be muted, almost to the point of being dour. Neil does a good job at projecting the smiling good-guy facade of a cut-throat businessman, and Hawke seems tailor-made for his role; there’s not a lot of depth required of him, but he makes the surface look interesting.
The exception is Dafoe, whose “Elvis” Cormac character is supposed to breathe some life into the proceedings. A working-class auto detailer (he used to make a living customizing cars to protect drivers from sunlight), Cormac is a bit one-note (we’re supposed to like him because he’s straight-forward and he loves his classic cars), but Dafoe is a good enough actor to make us like him even though he is little more than a generic type.
The critical mass missing from this equation is the joy of sunshine and warmth, the thrill of rolling down the convertible top and letting the wind rush through your hair as you race down a long road on a sunny day. The Spierig Brothers more or less take for granted the superiority of ordinary human life over the vampire’s night-time existence, so much so that they never bother to sell the idea emotionally. When Dalton finally effects his cure, it works as a plot point, but we don’t really feel it in our gut the way we should. Like many artists who work in the realm of cinefantastique, they seem better at exploring the darkness than bathing in the light. The result is a good film, not a great one. Perhaps next time out, they can strike the perfect balance between (in Byon’s words) “all that’s best, of dark and bright.”
DAYBREAKERS (copyright 2009, released January 8, 2010). Written and directed by the Spierig Bothers (Michael and Peter). Cast: Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill, Willem Dafoe, Claudia Karvan, Mungo McKay, Emma Randal, Michael Dorman.