Posted by: Trey | 06/01/2010

Daybreakers (2009)

Trey’s Rating: 4 sets of fangs (out of 5)

First, a confession (though it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me): I have a thing for vampire movies.  Scary, campy, modern, period, it doesn’t particularly matter what kind – although to be honest I usually lean toward period Dracula films.  The best vampire films are the ones that are able to maintain a connection to the traditions of vampire lore while managing to put a new spin on the presentation/execution.

Daybreakers is unique in that it is a sci-fi/vampire hybrid film that actually works.  Too often when mixing those genres the end result is a watered-down action movie or a concept so diluted that it no longer works as entertainment or social commentary (see most adaptations of I am Legend after the Vincent Price Last Man on Earth).  It seems that if you move too far away from the safety of that vaguely-defined period setting, with its fairy tale style and gothic aesthetic, then suddenly directors and studios become terrified of the V-word and must do everything they can to dance around the supernatural qualities of their creatures.  Daybreakers actually embraces the mythology of the vampire and (in the tradition of good science fiction and horror) uses it to address issues relevant to contemporary society.

What I found most interesting about the film is that it presents a kind of endgame scenario for the kind of world proposed by I am Legend (the novel, at least – the films are another story).  Vampires by nature embody humanity at its most parasitic and consumer-driven; to what degree could a civilization built on that foundation be expected to thrive?  Thus vampire culture becomes symbolic of our own consumerist, materialist, ecologically self-destructive society.  Their inventiveness and creativity thrives in developing solutions to work around their weaknesses (the various anti-sunlight technologies are very clever), yet little of that energy is directed at replenishing or reducing dependence on human blood – the ultimate non-renewable energy resource.

Unfortunately this allegory gets a little muddled/lost by the third act, as coincidence and an extra-large helping of pseudo-science take over to speed things toward the writers/directors’ desired conclusion, but even with that Daybreakers is entertaining to watch.  The cast is surprisingly impressive for a relatively low-profile genre flick – I’m not a huge Ethan Hawke fan (although I will readily defend Gattaca and Hamlet), but his style is well-suited to the protagonist (even if his ‘mopey reluctant vampire’ schtick is more than a little played out by now).  The two who really steal the show are Sam Neill as sleazy corporate vampire Charles Bromley and Willem Dafoe as a crossbow-wielding vampire hunter named Elvis.

Most reviews that I have read knock Daybreakers for just being a B-movie, which I believe is not fair.  It never really sets out to be anything more than a B-movie, and so it succeeds in its effort.  It’s a little bit sci-fi and a little bit horror blended with just a dash of noir for flavor, and – like the best genre B-movies – it uses its generic conventions to try and say something about contemporary society.  I was a little disappointed that the film abandoned the romanticism of the vampire genre, but it is understandable given the dystopic sci-fi setting of the film – in other words, a world where vampires no longer need to be seductive.  Even with some minor pacing issues and a third act that doesn’t really live up to the set-up of the first two thirds of the film, I really enjoyed this take on the vampire myth and would happily recommend it to fans of the genre.  It may not be as romantic as Langella’s Dracula or as gory as From Dusk till Dawn, but given the current state of vampire films, it is safe to say that Daybreakers has more than enough bite to stand out from the crowd.  In short, it may not be great, but it’s a bloody good movie.

© Ralph Lawson III, 2010, All Rights Reserved

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