Opening in theaters January 8th
Ethan Hawke as Edward Dalton
Sam Neill as Charles Bromley
William Dafoe as Elvis
Michael Dorman as Frankie Dalton
Claudia Karvan as Audrey Bennett
Directed by: Peter and Michael Spierig
Hands up if you thought the zombies would inherit the earth. Turns out you and George A. Romero were wrong. It’s the vampires that shall wipe out most of humanity.
In their belated follow-up to 2003’s Undead, which received its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest, Australia’s Michael and Peter Spierig takes us a decade into the future to present a world that is on the verge of losing the last vestiges of the human race. Vampires reign supreme years after a plague turned billions into the undead. The remaining humans receive an ultimatum by the ruling majority: grow some fangs or give us your blood.
After years of sucking the human population dry, the vampires fear for their future when their source of nourishment dwindles to the point of extinction.
Enter Dr. Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), a hematologist working for a powerful pharmaceutical company. Dalton’s charged by his boss Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) with the task of perfecting a synthetic blood substitution. What happens when a vampire succumbs to blood deprivation? They mutate into hideous, malevolent bat-like creatures known as Subsiders.
For reasons that stem from his transformation into a vampire, Dalton refuses to consume human blood. He limits himself to pig blood, but even that’s in short supply. He’s already showing signs of mutating.
Dalton just wants to end the blood shortage; a human, Audrey Bennett (Claudia Karvan), then out of the blue presents him with a cure to vampirism. Elvis (Willem Dafoe), a bloodsucker that reverted back to a human, is living proof that vampirism is reversible. That’s all well and good, but Dalton knows the bottom line-driven Bromley will stop at nothing to prevent a cure from being presented to a thirsty public willing to pay top dollar for a drop of blood.
The idea of a vampire like Bromley feeding off the misery of his own kind is an intriguing one. But the Spierig brothers never truly commit to dissecting the economics of supply and demand during a time of crisis. Then again, it’s just one of many ideas pursued by the Spierig Brothers that are never fully realized.
How about the allure of vampirism being too strong to resist? You don’t age and you live forever. Hey, I understand why a girl would rather burn to death in the sunlight than remain trapped for eternity in the body of a 10-year-old year child. But why would Dalton – 35 (again for the 10th time) and upwardly mobile – resist being a vampire when his human-hunter brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) embraces it? Dalton’s actions reveal that vampires do not completely lose their moral code when their humanity is sucked right out of them. So what gives? Don’t look to the Spierigs for any insights. They like to think they are making a treatise on the human condition, but they’re actually too busy concocting new ways to kill off everyone in sight.
Then there’s Bromley’s attempt to reconcile with his daughter, Alison (Isabel Lucas). He cannot abide the notion of his only child being human, and remains deaf to her demands that she remains such. No real thought is put into the dynamics of this friction-filled father-daughter relationship other to reaffirm that Bromley’s unfair and inflexible.
Perhaps this could all be overlooked if the Spierigs gave us vampires we had never seen before. Instead, they stick with all the old traits – sharp fangs, an aversion to sunlight, no reflection – and consequently their vampires lack any mystery. As for the Subsiders and their webbed forelimbs, you haven’t seen sillier humanoid creatures since Resident Evil: Apocalypse‘s Nemesis.
I couldn’t tell you the process of transforming a vampire back to a human works even if I wanted. It’s one thing not to get caught up in scientific mumbo jumbo, it’s another thing not to even attempt to offer whether the vaguest of explanations. You just have to take on faith that the process works; after all, we’re not talking about a cure for cancer.
If it weren’t for Hawke, you would wonder whether Dalton’s the right man entrusted to save the vampire nation. Dalton barely says one sentence that reveals him to be a man of science. But the typically broody Hawke knows how to make Dalton seem as smart as he’s supposed to be. Still, you get the sense the indie staple thinks he’s above it all and would rather be working on Richard Linklater’s latest chamber piece.
How could Dafoe have a blast as a former vampire named Elvis? His one-liners, which roll off his tongue with a Southern drawl, are priceless. My personal favorite? You’ll know when you hear it. An urbane Neill does his devilish best, but the underwritten villainous role demands more than he can give.
Daybreakers isn’t entirely a lost cause. The Spierigs concoct some adrenaline-fueled showdowns against the human survivors and their vampire adversaries, all set in a distinct blue-and-gray retro-futuristic backdrop. A confrontation with a blood-crazed Subsider speaks volumes about where the estranged Dalton brothers stand philosophically, while an attack on a kiosk that sells heavily diluted blood ably sums up the chaos that grips the vampire population.
Alison’s eventual fate may not move her father, but it does have a profound impact on one major character that is in a position to influence matters. This moment of clarity comes at a time when the Spierigs condemn a civilized society for shunning its physically and mentally ill rather than trying to alleviate their pain and suffering.
As Daybreakers draws to a close, something odd happens. The Spierigs become inspired. They want to make amends for what’s come before. We think they have painted themselves into a corner by concocting a vampire reversal process that seems impossible to implement. But the Spierigs find a clever way around this cumbersome procedure to not only wrap things in logical fashion but also lay down the framework for a sequel that could find the hunter becoming the hunted.
But the last electrifying 20 minutes prompts just as frustration as it does admiration. Daybreakers boasts a terrific concept that’s poorly executed. The Spierigs sadly prove that two heads aren’t always better than one.