Daybreakers (review)

Children of Men

I don’t think anyone has thought of this before, but it’s the perfect, ultimate, brilliant extrapolation of the vampire conceit: What happens once almost everyone’s a vampire, unturned humans are nearly extinct, and the tastiest, most satisfying blood — the human kind — is running out? Some literary vampire tales (and probably some cinematic ones, too, though none spring instantly to mind) have made a distinct point of noting how wonderfully ecologically aware their bloodsuckers are, careful not to overpopulate themselves lest their food supply — that is, us — be destroyed. But Daybreakers — suddenly and shockingly and unexpectedly, though it shouldn’t be unexpected at all — points out how hopelessly idealistic that may be. Vampires are still people, after all, and we’ve rarely demonstrated a huge capacity for thinking beyond our immediate desires.
And such is the case in the intensely original world of 2019 invented by the Australian up-and-comer brother filmmakers Michael and Peter Spierig (Undead). It’s 10 years after the initial outbreak of bat-borne vampirism, and civilization has not collapsed. In fact, things look remarkably as they do today, with some minor differences. Light-excluding metal shutters on windows and totally enclosed walkways connecting high-rise buildings characterize urban downtown, but people still commute to work, picking up a cup of blood-spiked coffee on the way in to the office. Public service announcements alert everyone that sunrise is imminent, and street signs detailing parking restrictions mention “school nights,” but not much else has changed. (I won’t spoil all the vampire modifications to 21st-century living — discovering them is part of the geeky joy of this film, though the Spierigs are not self-indulgent enough, thank Bram Stoker, to make them a focus; they just slide by, barely commented upon, and tickle us all the more as a result.)

The TV news is still full of scaremongering reports about scarce resources and undesirables who are making a nuisance of themselves. But the resource here is not water or oil but blood, and the undesirables aren’t terrorists or immigrants or liberals but those unfortunate — and violently dangerous — folks who find themselves without access to blood for even a short while. What happens to the Spierigs’ vampires when they go hungry is… well, I won’t spoil that, either. But it’s not good.

One company — led by a snakish Sam Neill (Wimbledon, Doctor Zhivago) in full-on evil bloodsucking corporate vampire mode; it’s not a metaphor! — is racing to create an artificial blood substitute to tide everyone over till the human population (what’s left of it) can bounce back. (One wonders whether Neill’s company is breeding the unturned — it already has them hooked up to milking machines in a factory-farm situation; but that unsettling possibility goes unexplored.) Scientist Ethan Hawke (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Fast Food Nation) is leading the research team, but he’s got some moral issues with feeding on humans — still, the final, awful stage of the vampire apocalypse must be staved off, one way or another. And then Hawke’s Edward is contacted by the human resistance (led by Willem Dafoe [The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, Fantastic Mr. Fox] and Claudia Karvan [Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith], who’s world famous in Australia), and discovers that the secret they’re harboring has an even more potent potential than the fake blood Edward is seeking.

The action is industry standard, in many ways, though the Spierigs — who wrote the script as well as directed — are wonderfully sly and witty in how they deploy it: the humans come armed with crossbows and wooden arrows; a car chase ends up taking a cue from the needs of vampires to ratchet up its suspense. It’s all the unspoken potentials of the grim world the film just scratches the surface of that so enthralls, things that are barely touched on — like the hints of how those suddenly eternally children are coping with their fates (not well) — or left as horrifying afterimages… such as the experiment with a blood substitute that doesn’t go so well. And in the clear but not overly harped upon connections to our world today, as in the disturbing and uncomfortable “othering” the vampire-humans easily engage in, looking upon the unturned as the enemy, as, ironically, less than human.

If you don’t want to have to think about anything other than gallons of blood, vampires bursting into flames, and the like, Daybreakers won’t force you to. But if you have a jones for horrors intellectual as well as visceral, this’ll go down nicely.

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