starring Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Claudia Carvan, Sam Neill
written and directed by The Spierig Brothers
by Ian Pugh The Spierig Brothers' Daybreakers is a juicy genre exercise waiting to happen, and maybe it would have happened if the film weren't tangled up in hamfisted allegory. What sets this vampire flick apart is not its high-pitched screed against capitalism (the system's fulla bloodsuckers, I tells ya!), but the fact that its staked vampires explode into a bloody mess. Its most beautiful sights are certainly not rooted in the dawning of a new day, but in Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe spontaneously bursting into flames for one reason or another. This is not what you'd call a dry film, yet I can't help thinking that a little more ichor would have been for the better. Funny how that works, actually: the Spierigs' last film, Undead, was a splatterfest in desperate need of a point; here, they finally have a point, and all you want to see is the next exploding vampire. (Where the two pictures are most alike is that they're both shot through a series of increasingly-obnoxious pastel filters.) It'll take another film to determine whether the Brothers have anything worthwhile to say, but the lingering suspicion is that they simply lack the creative instincts of their beloved Sam Raimi--that vital ability to discern the profound from the fatuous.
The Spierigs' infectious plague wins again, transforming much of the human race into vampires, with the few and fast-depleting "survivors" hunted and farmed for blood by a privatized army. Hematologist Edward Dalton (Hawke, adequate for the role's demands) has worked tirelessly to find an antidote to the plague--or a blood substitute, or really any way to keep more humans from dying--and his altruistic efforts attract the attention of a small band of freedom fighters led by ex-vampire Elvis (Dafoe, who does "mock deadly serious" better than anyone). The problem driving the plot is that, without a steady supply of blood to sate them, the vampires will turn into maniacal, irrational bat-people, which is arguably Daybreakers' aptest metaphor for the natural problems of the free market. It's a bitter recreation of the class divide that clearly states that "they" used to be "us," as well as a life-and-death struggle Michael Moore couldn't quite convey with his own Capitalism: A Love Story. But we're too often reminded that a cure for vampirism would be bad for business--a concept basically personified by Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), a fiendish blood-bank magnate. Bromley throws his daughter (Isabel Lucas) under the bus when she refuses to integrate into society, convinces Edward's wayward military brother (Michael Dorman) into an inadvisable course of action, and becomes indirectly responsible for the death (by decapitation!) of a ridiculously obvious analogue for Barack Obama. Evidently, it's not a question of misinterpreting the material--it's whether this material is possible to misinterpret.
The problems are inherent to the system, Daybreakers screams at the top of its lungs, and the only way to change the system is to rebuild it from the ground up. That's hardly an original thought, and the way the Spierigs go about expressing it ain't exactly novel, either. Imagining blood purveyors as '50s-era malt shops is admittedly inspired, but the inevitable punchline to that holds no surprises--how many times do you have to watch dudes in suits claw at each other and ravenously lick blood from the floor before you get the point? Though not as embarrassing as Avatar and its "not in this economy," Daybreakers is disappointingly content to let the conceits of its genre keep the script on autopilot, making it that much easier to categorize, file away, and ultimately forget. Despite its general unpleasantness and Dafoe's irreverence, the legitimate horror aspects boil down to cheesy afterthought; and its dissertation against materialist greed inexplicably finishes on an American Beauty note by using a tricked-out Pontiac to encapsulate life in all its splendour. Hypocrisy? Not exactly--it's the logical endpoint for any story with a lot of things on its mind and not the slightest clue of how to articulate them. Originally published: January 8, 2010.