Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Daybreakers (Spierig 2009/2010)

Is anything more annoying to genre film fans than seeing a good film fail to find the audience upon initial release? Actually, yes, there is, and that is seeing miserable excuses for genre cinema succeed with general audiences, thus ensure that crap continues to be produced instead of solid efforts.

Among the most annoying films to see fail last year was Daybreakers (Spierig 2009/2010 [while a 2009 film, it opened in North America in January of 2010]), a film which addresses a long asked question in horror film circles: if vampires did succeed in taking over the world and became the dominate species, how would they keep feeding themselves with a dwindling human population? This question drives the narrative of Daybreakers, a near future set film that deftly blends science fiction and horror in a manner that few films ever achieve.

Looking to answer the problem of the depleting blood supply in Daybreakers is Dr. Dalton (Ethan Hawke), chief scientist for a major corporation lead by Charles Bromley (Sam Neil). Dalton’s task is not imperative due survival reasons however, because the lack of blood does not kill a vampire. Rather the longer a vampire goes without blood, the more likely they are to transform into a mindless bestial form. Worse, the blood supplies are down to merely a few weeks worth left, meaning the bulk of the population is facing this animalistic existence.

Dalton’s personal motives for looking for a blood alternative is not driven by a desire to preserve vampire kind however, but rather to preserve humanity. He sympathizes with the remaining humans, and hopes his work will lead to the end of the human blood farming that has been undertaken to preserve most of the population. Dalton’s search for a blood alternative is completely altered however due to a chance meeting with a group of humans on the run, a meeting which leads him to ‘Elvis’ (Willem Dafoe), a one time vampire who has been miraculously cured without knowing quite how.

Elvis believes Dalton can unravel the mystery of the how the cure works before it is too late for the population of the world, but complicating the situation is Dalton’s brother Frankie (Michael Dorman), a human hunter looking to help Bromley preserve vampire kind, regardless of whether or not a cure is in the best interests of both of the vampires and humans.

What separates Daybreakers from most other recent genre efforts is the level of detail that writers/directors Michael and Peter Spierig - the duo behind the heavily flawed but fun 2003 effort Undead - bring to the film. Like the best of science fiction film and literature, the brothers have crafted a full fledged world, packed with detail that, while not always necessary for the narrative, give a full sense of a living, breathing alternate reality. How can vampires function in daylight? Try interconnected underground tunnels, and cars that utilize video cameras as opposed to windows. How does a world full of vampires manage to keep their blood supplies from running out faster than they already are? Blood rationing, controlled by the government and private corporate interests. These are just the big questions that I am give the answers to; a good deal of the film’s joys come from discovering how the world of vampires works, and just how frighteningly close to our day to day existence it remains.

Perhaps more shocking however is the manner in which the filmmakers utilize the world they have created to deliver a rather subtle, and incredibly cleaver, allegory for the anxieties surrounding the uncontrolled consumption within Western society, particularly of fossil fuels such as oil. The film places great emphasis upon vehicles and road imagery in the film, with several significant events featuring cars prominently. The rationing and price increases of blood recall the fuel crisis of 1973, as does much of the imagery throughout the film. Dalton’s race for a “blood substitute” is a just subtle enough nod towards contemporary research and development of alternative energy sources. Read in this manner, the film’s presentation of the relationship between the militaristic human hunters and Bromley’s corporate power seems eerily similar to the conspiracy claims that oil supplies were the driving force behind most of the United States middle eastern involvement in the past decade, most notably the Iraq war.

It is not all politics though, as the filmmakers have fun playing with and subverting the typical tropes and imagery of the vampire film. While the 1998 mini-classic sci-fi/horror/superhero effort Blade first initiated the modern presentation of the vampire at the top of modern urban life, Daybreakers takes this concept to its limit, with the upper crust of vampire kind living in sterile consumerist paradise/hell. In contrast to this, the surviving humans have taken to the vampire hangouts of yesteryear, in isolated vineyards with gothic style housing. Clandestine meetings take place under the cover of day in the biggest car in the county (I have no shame. Really), and salvation may come with a vampire bite, though not in the manner you think.

As an Australian/American co-production, the film is peppered with talent from both countries. Hawke makes for an solid lead in Dalton, utilizing his almost minimalist approach to acting to great impact, while the Spierig brothers making excellent use of Hawke’s rather gaunt appearance. Dafoe manages to walk a fine line between caricature and character as ‘Elvis,’ while Claudia Karvan is sidelined by a somewhat underwritten role as Elvis’ right hand woman . Also suffering from slightness of writing is Dorman, though his performance is strong enough to make up for the somewhat sketch nature of his character.

The show stopper in the film however is Neil, a villain who could have come across as a rather typical corporate bad guy were it not for some better than expected writing, and Neil’s magnificent work. Bromley is a monster, but a rather understandable and sympathetic one. His actions within the film’s main plot are villainous, but a subplot involving Bromley’s daughter is rather touching, as we get to see him as a well meaning, but rather destructive father away from the film’s main narrrative concerns. While the subplot does involve a touch of coincidence, the manner in which it impacts Bromley’s overall character is rather understated and subtle, and the effort from both Neil and the filmmakers is much appreciated. Plus, (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) Neil is given the single best death scene of his entire career with this film, and it is one that would make George A. Romero smile (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT OVER).

Perhaps the most impressive element of the film however is the rather ambiguous note upon which the film concludes, tackling a question that most films of this type avoid addressing: even if one could find the solution to the worldwide problem, just how on Earth is any solution going to be disseminated effectively? Rather than using some plot contrivance to write themselves out of this corner, the filmmakers address the issue head on in a rather dark manner. It is an ending which provides hope, but it is a subdued hope, leaving the audience to grapple with several narrative and thematic questions that are not fully answered on purpose. It is a rather gutsy manner upon which to end the film, and it shows the level of ambition brought to the project by all involved.

There are minor flaws with Daybreakers, but they are just that, minor. With any luck, in ten years time the film will be remembered as one of the stronger, if not strongest, vampire films to come out of the current craze for undead fiction. Highly recommended.

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