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by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jan 8, 2010
Lock and load: Ethan Hawke stars in Daybreakers
Lock and load: Ethan Hawke stars in Daybreakers  (Source:Lionsgate Films)

Daybreakers would like to have it both ways: the film begins with a jolt, as a screeching bat races across the screen. Moments after this cheap scare, a cleverly worked series of introductory shots presents us with a world in which most of humanity has been converted into vampires; TV screens and newspaper headlines impart crucial information without clobbering us over the head with it. The year is 2019; ten years ago, a single bat-bite unleashed a highly contagious disease that led to a world-wide pandemic of classic vampirism, complete with blood-thirst, invulnerability to age and disease, and a profound vulnerability to sunlight and wooden stakes.

For a virus to do all that is scientifically sketchy, but it does allow for a world both chillingly unlike--and perplexingly similar to--our own. Vampire citizens make use of "subwalks" to traverse the city, and drive around in specially outfitted, sunlight-proof automobiles. Sharp-toothed teens text-message one another and hang out on the corner; they even get gloomy and kill themselves (though the reasons and the methods have changed according to the times).

At the same time, vampire society suffers from all the same ills that our contemporary culture does: the haves bustle past the have-nots, sipping their blood-laced coffee in to-go cups while the homeless look on with resentment and fight one another in the shadows. But wait: there's more to this picture than first meets the blood-shot eye. If the homeless and hungry seem especially aggressive, it's because a vampire deprived of sufficient blood nourishment for too long turns feral, sprouting Nosferatu-like ears and striking out in a mindless frenzy.

Unfortunately, the first thing the vampires did when they became the majority was to outlaw regular human beings. Those few rebels who resist are farmed for their blood once they're hunted down and caught; but with so few humans left to satisfy the world's thirst, a massive meltdown on a global scale looms.

This all sounds like a clever setup for sly social commentary, and the movie does take a few jabs at capitalism that are as sharp as any proper wooden stake, but complications pile onto complications in an absurd multiplication that pulls the movie off track. Pharmaceuticals CEO Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) sees what's coming, and sees how the racks of human flesh that once graced his labs are emptying out; he's got top researcher Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) working on a blood substitute to feed the masses. When Dalton discovers that there's a cure for vampirism--and converts himself back into a human being--he becomes an enemy of the state, but worse, he becomes an enemy of the corporation that relies on "repeat business," as one company man puts it, for its profits. Bromfield knows he can't lose Dalton--certainly not to something as un-American as effective health care--and so he recruits Dalton's younger brother Frankie (Michael Dorman), a soldier, to lead the effort to track and capture the rogue scientist.

The blood-borne metaphors--to HIV, to family connections--are obvious, but the movie hardly seems to know what to do with them. Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, who co-wrote and co-directed, continue in the same tonally herky-jerky vein in which they started; sometimes the film is campy, almost jolly, its antics overblown, what with exploding heads, and Sam Neill sipping blood from a brandy snifter, and home invasions by flapping, shrieking, feral vampires who have swapped their sanity for leathery wings and gravity-defying powers. At other times, the story reaches for a grimmer, more resonant stratum: it's this latter mode that the film's trailers reference, complete with Placebo's heartbeat-driven cover of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill," and the movie's glossy, chilly production lends itself more readily to downbeat suaveness than car porn and risible chase scenes. But there you go; classic cars and chase scenes are part of the picture, too.

There's also a girl, and a long-lost daughter for Bromfield to agonize over and offer to Frankie for some fangy fun, and Willem DaFoe as an underground leader and ex-vampire (really, he's the only really fitting casting choice here: I mean, Ethan Hawke? There are a few stylistic glimmers of Gattaca here, but not enough to justify dragging him into this), but all these elements seem like gobbets of ground chuck to toss into the wok from which the screenplay was cooked up. What they don't seem like is meat for the story's bones.

The film's paint-by-blood-spatter plotting is conventional, but effective enough to keep things moving, though there's little sense of mystery as to where we're headed. There is one truly brilliant twist, and it leads to a scene worthy of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. It's not nearly enough, however: the moment comes late in the movie, and is cut short in a rather venal manner, leaving the film to sputter out in what may have been intended as a grim warning or, just as likely, an open-ended invitation for a sequel. What it feels like, however, is that the film has simply bled out and keeled over.

A cure for vampirism would be nifty, and a cure for HIV (assuming that big business would allow such a thing) would be even better, but what you really want after seeing Daybreakers is a cure for wasted time.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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