Lionsgate | Australia/USA | 98 min.
A vampire film with considerable bloodwork and vicious characters that also contains genuinely original ideas? That’s a nearly impossible thing to find in this now overpopulated genre, but Daybreakers is a rare exception. It’s not a great film as it contains a few underwhelming problems, but at least it’s ambitious, original and ultimately an entertaining experience.
The year is 2019 and the world is now run by vampires. Humans are nearly extinct and hunted so they can be farmed for blood. Inevitably the main problem with an all vampire world arises: what do you do when all the human blood is sold out? That’s for Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) to figure out. Edward is a vampire unlike any other. He resents being one and feels nothing but sympathy for humans. He shows this by refusing to drink human blood. Now with only enough blood to sustain the population for a month, Edward must find a substitute. After a few experiments everything goes from awry to terribly wrong. There’s no sense of hope. After a brief encounter with some human survivors he ends up joining forces with them trying to figure out a cure for the blood thirsty disease that has taken over our planet. During all of this, assistance from the eccentric Elvis (Willem Dafoe) is provided and another cross bow wielding lady of the night Audrey Bennett (Claudia Karvan).
The story’s first half fully lives up to its great ambitions. This ultimately is a simplistic hybrid of horror, science fiction and of course action. There’s a few plodding moments throughout the story such as a useless subplot revolving around Edward’s boss Charles Bromley (Sam Neil). Bromely isn’t the issue, but the side story involving his daughter is. All their moments feel underdeveloped and ultimately hurt the film’s pacing in the end. That storyline is in many ways useless. The real aspect that drives the story is Edward’s search for the cure and it’s handled well. This is all that transpires up until the third act where it more or less becomes a formulaic action film. It still remains wildly entertaining despite not living up to the set up. As for the obvious allegories sprinkled in, they never distract or take away from the fun. These ideas could have instantly become heavy handed and trite, but the Spierig brothers never allow that.
Hawke plays Edward similar to plenty of his past roles — i.e. hurt, distant and unsure of himself. Hawke does it genuinely good here. That’s a major factor that plays into Daybreakers success: the acting. Unlike plenty of films of its genre, the leads are believable and contain a self-awareness of what type of movie they’re in. Willem Dafoe and Sam Neil undoubtedly steal the show with their scenery chewing characters. Dafoe is the hero you’re left cheering for and laughing with while Neil is that fun villain that always keeps his cool. With Neil and Dafoe stealing the movie, it is quite saddening that they unfortunately never share any screen time together. The rest of the cast ultimately ranges from decent to forgettable.
The Spierig brothers made a fine cult debut with the limited and enjoyable Undead, but here they’ve delivered a much more superior film. With a modest budget they’ve developed a well detailed and wonderfully realized world unlike any other. From the tiniest details of the vampire history to how vampires go out during the day, it’s all very creative. The attention to detail visually and storytelling wise is nothing short of impressive. They also never stray away from buckets of glorious blood-work and some extremely well shot action sequences. From the first encounter with a subsider to the third act, it’s quite a bloody show. No expense is spared on the blood — they went all out. This is an original vampire film that even happens to show them in a new light. They’re cocky and never think about the future; never realizing the complications of immortality. They live normal lives and are adjusted to the world around them.
There are a few pacing issues, a subplot or two that falls flat and a few weak minor performances, but Daybreakers is still nothing but pure original audacious fun. Many will deem the film as “silly” and in retrospect it is, but the film never forgets that. There are some serious moments that feel earned, but this is an extremely self aware piece of B-movie fun.