17 January 2010

Movie Review: Daybreakers


2010, 98mins, R
Director (s): The Spierig Brothers
Writer (s): The Spierig Brothers
Cast includes: Ethan Hawke, Claudia Karvan, Isabel Lucas, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill
Release Date: 8th January 2010

Vampires are pretty much the most popular monsters on the planet right now; one only has to look at the recent glut of bloodsucker filled films to draw such a conclusion. Since 2007 we’ve been treated to amongst others “30 Days of Night”, “Let the Right One In” and the bizarrely popular “Twilight” pictures all movies of variable quality but equally all movies that put the vampire at the forefront of their narratives. “Daybreakers” is the latest offering to revel in the demonic leeches and all the mythology that goes with them, but despite vampire fatigue fast approaching multiplexes worldwide, “Daybreakers” is a surprisingly entertaining and original production. Directed by the Spierig brothers with an eye for horrific detail the film is a relentlessly enjoyable thriller that doesn’t shy away from gore but maybe more importantly it seeks to provide a set of accomplished performances too.

The movie opens in 2019 some ten years after an unidentified infection has spread and turned the world into one inhabited by vampires. The creatures have a civilised and remarkably similar existence to humans, only they sleep during the day and take blood with their coffee instead of milk. However a problem has emerged in the revelation that only 5% of the human population now remains, meaning that a shortage of blood to feed on has hit a critical level (a metaphor for oil, clearly). Government scientist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) has been charged with finding a substitute by blood mogul Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) but has of late found no success. Adding urgency to the matter is the appearance of “subsiders”, a breed of terrible mutants that through their starvation have been twisted into ghoulish and emotionless shadows of their former selves. As Edward works away trying to find a solution he stumbles across a group of humans led by ex-vampire Elvis (Willem Dafoe), and alongside them puts his focus into curing vampirism rather than seeking a temporary relief for the condition. However Bromley isn’t happy to learn of Edward’s change in heart, and channels all his power into halting the scientists’ progress and wiping out the humans.

I was truly bewildered by how convivial and rambunctious an effort “Daybreakers” is and whilst I won’t be craving for more vampire pictures in the near future, this is damned enough reason to demand more from the Spierig brothers. The movie also written by the dynamic siblings is fused with plenty of imagination and playful cartoon archetypes, which coupled with their stylish direction and taste for gore makes them a delectable mainstream proposition. I admire that “Daybreakers” tries to add in a contemporary commentary on the current crisis surrounding oil, but really the movie is a rousing success on the grounds of its sheer determination to deliver a satisfying slice of horror with a side order of thrills.

The screenplay is an intelligently written and relatively well stitched together piece that focuses more on character than bombastic action or yawn inducing night stalking. Indeed a core criticism I would level at the picture is it features mostly ordinary action scenes; they’re perfectly watchable just not as intuitive or ambitious as the rest of the film. The dialogue holds up well against other genre contemporaries but the real delight is in the roster of engaging characters and cool ideas that translate the vampire legacy into a terrifically impressive future setting. The Spierig brothers have pretty much addressed every issue a vampire could have with contemporary life and done it with skill and an appreciated undertone of humour, the plot takes itself quite seriously so it’s nice that the backdrop offers a lighter and more amusing sense of relief.

Ethan Hawke is solid rather than extraordinary as Edward; certainly he’s upstaged by a few of his more animated co-stars. That said the actor deserves credit where it is clearly due and that’s in the realm of tortured uncertainty and moral dissatisfaction. Edward is predictably the only vampire in the story who regrets his current condition and empathises with the hunted humans, but whilst the personal demons aren’t surprising Hawke at least applies a layer of credible gravitas and believability. More electric are Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill, the latter playing the bad guy with a wonderful theatricality and desire to unsettle the audience. Neill has been part of some great films in his career (“Jurassic Park” is a modern classic) but in recent years his output has been irregular and inconsistent. “Daybreakers” rectifies that unfortunate situation by giving the actor a chance to chew the scenery with aplomb. Dafoe also ramps up the shenanigans to 11 in his turn as a smart talking member of the human resistance with an unusual past, we’ve seen him do it before, but it’s still great fun to behold. Elsewhere less impressionable performances are made bearable thanks to above average writing. Isabel Lucas at least has a good arc to draw on as Bromley’s unhappy tearaway daughter whilst Claudia Karvan creates a tolerable dynamic with Hawke despite her mostly wooden acting.

Visually the movie is attractive without being intrusive, and the Spierig’s avoid style over substance by dosing the picture with a healthy amount of character building subplots. Hawke’s hero is given a confused and morally unstable brother; Neill and Lucas create a rather unenviable father/daughter dynamic and well......Dafoe has his own bloodsucking past to deal with. These may sound hackneyed on paper but in practise they’re shockingly sturdy and beef up the film and characters in a practical fashion. Certainly additions like this make the occasionally shoddy CGI effects easy enough to overlook, yet whilst the digitals stumble the practical make-up is more than ample.

Fans of horror and science fiction should be able to get a monumental kick out of “Daybreakers” and the creativity and energy it brings to the cinematic game. For a vampire flick to be tolerable in the current climate it has to pack a good degree of thought and originality, “30 Days of Night” achieved it and so did “Let the Right One In” so it’s nice to slam “Daybreakers” into that camp rather than dismissing it into one populated by another neck nibbler named Edward. The action is formulaic but not in an unpleasant fashion and the story and various subtle additives combined with the Spierig’s obvious passion mutates the enterprise into a raucous thrill ride. “Daybreakers” is a nice surprise to receive so early in the year (January tends to be a dumping ground for dross) and hopefully represents a good omen for the next 12 months of popcorn entertainment.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2010


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