BY JOSHUA BAYER
Daily Arts Writer
Published January 11, 2010
You know what kind of movie you’re watching when some random dude with a shiny bald head appears onscreen for a second — just minding his own beeswax — and the first thought that comes to mind is, “He’s probably going to be impaled.” You really know what kind of movie you’re watching when said baldy is skewered with an anonymous dart about two seconds later.
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“Daybreakers” is “that kind of movie” — but it probably shouldn’t have been. Starting off as more of a dystopian think piece than a kerosene-soaked gore-fest, the film is especially disappointing because of its squandered premise. The opening 15 minutes violently dump the viewer into a vivid parallel universe where over 90 percent of the human race has been turned into bloodthirsty vampires, making humans a sought-after endangered species and their blood a rapidly dwindling commodity.
The stark world that the Spierig brothers (“Undead”) create makes for some genuinely affecting, socially conscious eye candy. “Daybreakers” drives a stake into the heart of the sensational, “I vant to suck your blood” vampire archetype, opting instead to portray vamps as mundanely human-like — albeit with pastier skin and significantly sharper teeth. There’s something incredibly unsettling about watching a bunch of undead preteens in their varsity jackets sipping coffees and texting on their cell phones.
Naturally, everything becomes much less juicy once the plot actually gets going. The narrative features Ethan Hawke (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”) as Edward Dalton, a blood-sucking hematologist attempting to harvest a blood substitute from human subjects in order to curb the widespread famine. While this may sound intriguing, the plot melts into a contrived series of twists and turns, seemingly designed to get as much gore and pyrotechnics onscreen as possible. Luckily, the gore is pretty hearty — the scene in which a test subject projectile vomits white-gray chunks all over himself and then blows up all over the operating room walls is particularly gratifying.
The problem is that “Daybreakers” is severely at odds with itself. While it seems to want to derail into mindless, blow-'em-up territory, it stubbornly clings onto the bleak, earnest tone of its apocalyptic premise without ever truly capitalizing on it. In one of the film’s many car chases, Dalton’s pursuers drive onto a bridge as it’s collapsing, and a metal beam smashes through the windshield spraying a Costco amount of bright red blood all over the rear window with an obnoxious splattering noise.
With violence this ridiculously cartoony, “Daybreakers” would’ve been better slated as a sadistically campy bloodbath à la “Kill Bill” or “Evil Dead.” But the second the guts are done flying, the soundtrack’s somberly swelling strings kick back in and the characters begin conversing gravely about the direness of their situation as if the audience actually cares. Hawke is especially morose, spending the majority of the film glowering and looking malnourished.
Dalton’s human companions do little to lighten the mood or flesh out the drama. Willem Dafoe (“The Boondock Saints”) is tossed in as a hard-ass former vamp who gruffly refers to himself as “Elvis,” clearly intended as wisecracking comic relief. But thanks to the Spierig brothers’ classically derivative script, Dafoe’s one-liners come off more like flat-liners (see: “Being a human in a world of vampires is about as safe as barebacking a five-dollar whore”).
Rather than bother to develop any legitimate chemistry between Dalton and half-baked love interest Audrey (Claudia Karvan, "Aquamarine”), “Daybreakers” shoves their “sexual tension” in the viewer’s face via melodramatic backlighting and hiring Karvan to run around in a skimpy red wife beater with her nips popping out for the second half of the film.
“Daybreakers” crumbles because it can’t decide whether it wants to be a brainy allegory or a brain-dead extravaganza. And by the time everyone’s ripping each other’s kidneys out in the streets, you’ll probably just be wishing you didn’t have to endure so much hollow sulking to get there.