Monday, March 21, 2011

Wendigo Meets DAYBREAKERS (2010)

My friend Wendigo is entertained by ideas and concepts. If a movie takes a novel noteworthy approach in building a fictional world, whether intellectually or aesthetically, he's more likely to be forgiving of any shortcomings in narrative or direction. If he can take an idea away that he can ponder afterward, or if he can see where the creators are getting their ideas or how they're adapting or evolving them, he considers the time spent worth his while. It's sometimes enough for a movie to be interesting, especially if a vampire movie takes the vampire motif in a new direction.

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.

The time is 2019, ten years after a random bat bite started a global pandemic that transformed the great majority of humans into vampires. While some people opted for suicide, most did not find this fate worse than death. By the time of the story, vampire is the new human. Bloodsucking has been normalized to an alarming degree as humanity's new condition created new opportunities for businesses (subwalk platforms for daytime pedestrian travel, digital screens to take the place of mirrors and windshields, etc.). What may surprise viewers is that Daybreakers is dystopian, not post-apocalyptic. Society hasn't collapsed into the clans of fantasy or all-against-all warfare. The normality of it all is really the most horrific element of the movie, making it something like an evil Hanna Barbera cartoon.

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.

When a traffic accident gives him a chance to rescue a band of fugitive humans from the vampire military, Ed is rewarded with an opportunity to meet an extraordinary person. Lionel "Elvis" Cormac (Willem Dafoe -- I said extraordinary, right?) is a former vampire. Through his own freak accident, Elvis learned that a cure for vampirism was possible.


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.

Once upon a time, Ed was scared by a little shaft of light. Look how brave he becomes!

You'd think a cure for vampirism would be the ideal resolution of the blood shortage issue, but some people, like Ed's boss (Sam Neill) like being vampires and the money they can make off vampirism. Daybreakers hammers home the point that greed is really the worst form of vampirism, and entrepreneurs the most dangerous vampires. Not even the discovery of a second cure mode (Elvis's purified blood cures Ed's brother) guarantees humanity's redemption as long as the alternative is wealth and power for someone else....

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?

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.

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.

Wendigo approached this film with a little trepidation because he isn't an Ethan Hawke fan. Ever since Reality Bites he hasn't really cared for the actor, but this time out Hawke impressed him as a personable and sympathetic hero. Willem Dafoe is Willem Dafoe, but that's a good thing. Sam Neill is too obviously a villain from the onset and doesn't hide it with his performance, though he has one good scene when he actually seems to regret what he's put his daughter through. The rest of the actors, including Michael Dorman as Ed's brother and Claudia Karvan as the human heroine, are underdeveloped, the brother especially given how important his changing motives are to the story.

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.

No comments: