Daybreakers has a great premise and a lot of ideas: What if vampires won? What if almost everyone was turned into a vampire? It’s not an entirely original idea – if you can, find a copy of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, which is criminally out of print – but writers/directors Peter & Michael Spierig put a lot of thought into their sci-fi/horror world.
How does an entirely nocturnal population get around during the day? And more importantly, where do you get human blood if everyone is a vampire? The film establishes early on that vampires who drink the blood of other vampires turn into feral beasts, so that’s not an option; animal blood may be functional, but it won’t keep bloodsuckers in peak condition.
It falls on the shoulders of Ed Dalton (Ethan Hawke), a haematologist researching blood substitutes. He wants to save humans from being hunted and farmed by vampires, but his boss, played by Sam Neill, merely wants to increase profit margins. His sympathetic attitude brings him into contact with a human resistance movement, and a man who was miraculously, and mysteriously, cured of vampirism.
Unfortunately, there may be too many ideas for a movie that’s just over 90 minutes. Daybreakers opens with a striking sequence of a vampirized 12-year-old committing suicide because she can’t accept the idea of living forever and never growing old, but the effect of immortality on the populace is never explored. Strained family relationships between vampires and humans are brought up, but never dealt with in any depth. The blood shortage creates clear haves and have-nots in society, but it’s not really explored. And for a film about a scientist trying to perfect a blood substitute or outright cure for vampirism, the scientific discovery seems pretty simple.
All this unexplored potential becomes even more frustrating when the film kicks in to Dumb Action Movie mode. It’s a vampire movie so there obviously needs to be action, and I don’t begrudge it some slashing and bloodshed. But it seems forced an unnecessary when this generally smart and stylish film – there’s an interesting 1930s noir feel to the fashion and design, and some of the vampiristic innovations look great – resorts to car chases and shootouts, as though the filmmakers were afraid the audience was going to stop paying attention. Daybreakers is never a particularly subtle film – the exploding head takes care of that – but the pounding dramatic scores and slow-mo action sequences are the work of someone who’s afraid audiences won’t understand what’s going on if it isn’t super-emphasized.
The casting is interesting, but not entirely effective. Sam Neill is delightfully evil as the corrupt corporate vampire CEO who harvests human blood for profit. Ethan Hawke is likeable as the mild-mannered scientist caught in the middle of everything, though he rarely feels passionate about much of the story. Willem DeFoe plays Willem DeFoe. Sometimes he has an accent, sometimes he doesn’t; sometimes he’s funny, and sometimes you just wonder what the heck Willem DeFoe is doing in the movie.
There are too many characters, and too few of them have enough depth to be interesting: Audrey, the brave and attractive resistance leader; Hawke’s brother, a loyal vampire soldier; Neill’s daughter, a human who ran away when she saw what her father had become; a vampire senator helping the human resistance; Hawke’s research assistant. They’re all there, they all have roles to play, but we know little about them that isn’t demanded by the plot.
All things considered, Daybreakers feels like it could make a very satisfying miniseries, with its cast of characters and wide-ranging social commentary. Or maybe it just needs to be a longer movie – another 20 or 30 minutes could give the story and characters added depth without making the film unwieldy. It’s an interesting film, at the very least, one that’s just good enough to make you frustrated that it’s not better; there’s an odd mix of the thoughtful and the bizarre, with an unfortunate helping of stupidity from time to time. I have some hopes for a more complete director’s cut of the film, as well as high expectations for the Spierig’s next outing.