Michael and Peter Spierig's Daybreakers is the kind of film where imagination redeems other creative flaws in Wendigo's eyes. Its drastically different approach to vampires takes the concept out of the realm of horror and into the uncomfortable domain of dystopian science fiction. For that reason, presumably, Lionsgate treated the movie like a hot potato, letting it sit on the shelf for two years before dumping it in theaters in January 2010. Like Let Me In later in that year, it was a vampire film that didn't cater to currently popular fantasies of vampirism, and that doomed it at the American box office. What's cool about being a vampire when the world's full of them, after all? So much for Daybreakers, but while the film has its problems, but it deserved a better fate.
Apocalypse is in the cards, however, because the supply of uninfected humans, who are herded and farmed for blood in the film's most dystopian images, is inevitably running out. For big business, crisis equals opportunity, and the Bromley Marks pharmaceutical firm is in the race to develop an artificial blood substitute. Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is part of the team experimenting on substitutes, often with explosively bloody results. Ed has a personal motive to work hard. A reluctant vampire in the first place (he was turned by his military brother to save his life), he's been abstaining from human blood, just as society is starting to discover that forced abstention due to shortages can have dangerous consequences. Stay off the juice too long and you start mutating; Ed's ears start to get pointy, for instance. Things get worse if you get desperate and start drinking your own blood or another vampire's. Then you're on the short track to becoming a "subsider," one of the feral, batlike vampire underclass whose numbers are growing as shortages get worse. One interesting thing about Daybreakers is how "normal" most vampires are. While they can't see themselves in mirrors and are vulnerable to sunlight, they don't have super strength unless they turn into subsiders, and they seem to be on even terms with humans in fights, both sides resorting to weapons adapted to their strengths and weaknesses.
Subsiders, the lowest of the low among vampires (above), are the physically strongest as well, while normal vampires have to wear special clothes (below right) just to have a fighting chance against humans in the daytime.
First you starve yourself like Ed has. Then you expose yourself to sunlight for a very limited time. The vampirism will literally burn off you in very painful fashion, and as long as you have some means of dousing the flames (Elvis was pitched through the windshield of his car and into a river) you'll be a new person. While steering clear of the military, including Ed's brother, the gang figures out a way to recreate the conditions of Elvis's cure in a more controlled environment. Ed subjects himself to an excruciating but successful treatment.
In its portrait of a society unsustainably dependent on a finite resource, Daybreakers has some obvious contemporary relevance. Wendigo admires the depth of the Spierig's imagination, but he sees some holes in the concept. The crisis seems to come too suddenly, in his view, with no one having anticipated the crisis and taken steps beyond blood farming. Hadn't anyone thought of cloning humans? For my part, I thought that a vampire majority might resort to p.r. to redefine themselves as the "real" humans, while the actual human minority might get stuck with some dehumanizing nickname to make their exploitation easier. There are bigger holes in the narrative. For instance, a group of humans are traveling in a convoy toward a rendezvous with Elvis's band, but against all common sense, they travel at night, when they'd be most vulnerable to vampires. Wendigo also thought that the entire idea of gathering all the humans together was a dubious idea, since it'd allow them all to be taken in one fell swoop.
For almost the full length of the film, Frankie Dalton (Michael Dorman) is the only vampire who bites humans in the neck. Why is that?
Somewhere past the halfway point, Daybreakers turns into a more conventional if not cliched action thriller with too many predictable plot twists. It also becomes more redundant, with a repetitive succession of vamp-on-vamp attacks to supposedly spread Cure No. 2. It becomes redundantly gory, too, as if the Spierigs needed to square up for a relative lack of it earlier. Once starving vampires tear into Sam Neill and other actors, the film comes closest to being a kind of horror film. Wendigo wasn't really bothered by the repetition, but felt that the actual effects, including a flying Neill head, left something to be desired. The various appearances of subsiders are handled better; they're scarier for the depths to which they've sunk than for how they look or act. The directors make a point of reminding us that the subsiders were all people once, though they're less successful with a subplot that takes the Neill character's daughter on a rapid arc from fugitive human to executed subsider.
There's a tragic grandeur to the fiery demise (above) of Charles Bromley's daughter, and a farcical fakeness to Charles's own undoing.
The Spierigs are at their best as satirists and manipulators of suspense. Wendigo singles out two scenes for praise: a riot at a coffee stand when consumers discover that the blood content has been cut and Ed's daytime drive into the shade of a large tree for a meeting with fugitive humans. The first exemplifies the satiric, dystopian element of the film, how the artificial normality of the vampire majority can fall apart over petty things and turn purported people into battling animals. The second, an early episode, is convincingly tense because the directors have put over their concept and made clear what a huge risk Ed is taking by traveling to the middle of nowhere in broad daylight, with only the shade to save him from burning death. Whenever the action follows from the concept, Daybreakers is on sure ground. When there's action for action's sake, the film is less sure. But for a concept man like Wendigo, the film is a unique enough take on vampires to earn a bloody thumb up.