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Daybreakers

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or, Ethan Hawke, Vampire Slayer

An entertaining vampocalypse movie that still misses the chance to be really good.

It begins beautifully.

We watch an apparent 12-year-old writing a note to her parents and then going to sit outside in the predawn glow. We cut back and forth between things like her yellow eyes, and selected parts of the note, and we gradually realize that she is a vampire and that she is committing suicide. The sun rises, she immolates, and the credit sequence starts.

After the elegant and touching opening scene, I had very high hopes for this movie. They were not realized. It’s not a bad movie at all, and given the genre, that’s pretty high praise. I would totally tell me to go see it. But it’s a frustrating movie. Throughout, it continues to have these glimmers of the better move that could have been made.

The backstory is quickly sketched out through headlines and news clips — we’re ten years into a vampire apocalypse (started by a stray bat?). Most people are now vampires, and there are very few humans left. And oh look! The blood supply is running out.

This part of the premise — that society fails to take the threat of lack of human blood seriously until it’s pretty much at the point where civilization is about to collapse — struck me as weirdly plausible.

The sun sets and we see the vampires going about their lives, taking the subway and buying coffee/blood mixtures. This part also works very well, as the universal vampiness means that everybody dresses fabulously and wears hats and smokes a lot and generally looks like an Edward Hopper painting. There’s plenty of entertaining world-building, such as cars rigged up with “day driving” equipment where the windows go black and the navigation is done with cameras.

Ethan Hawke plays Edward (Yes, I know. People mostly call him Ed.), a blood researcher looking for a synthetic blood substitute. The early scenes of him going to work are good, playing out a bit like Undead Gattacca.

But then we hit an off note in the pacing — we see, far too early, the Matrix-like banks of pallid unconscious humans being drained of their blood.

Sure, it’s creepy and grotesque, but it could have been deeply devastating if it had happened a bit later with more of a buildup.

I’m thinking of a similar scene in District 9, where the alien finds out the nature of the experiments the humans have been doing on his people. For a moment he’s too overwhelmed to go on, even though there are people coming who are going to kill him any moment if he doesn’t run. I found that scene very affecting.

In Daybreakers, by going full-bore on the worst thing the vampires do to the humans, Ed’s emotional conflicts don’t have a sense of escalation. He looks at the blood farm and is appalled, as pretty much anyone who still has a conscience would be. And then he has that resigned “I’m doing this for the greater good!” look and gets back to work.

But that brings up some questions right away that are never addressed in a fully satisfying way. Is Ed the only vampire with a conscience? Why? Is there something about becoming a vampire that actually makes people more callous? Has anyone noticed? Because everybody seems to be aware of these blood farms of unwilling humans, and Ed is the only one who acts bothered by it.

I would have preferred the exact nature of the blood farms to be hidden for a while. Maybe we could first meet a few free range and apparently willing victims, ala that creepy scene in Thirst where they have these pallid hippies who are all, like, “I want you to eat me!”

Ed eventually falls in with a group of human resistors (all good humans are naturally rounded up by the army and put to their proper use as food, another nicely wicked touch that could have been rolled out with a bit more drama). He starts working on a cure that actually reverses vampirisim. I liked that the cure was incredibly painful. And that it required Ethan Hawke to take his shirt off and get lit on fire. In general, I’m in favor of shirtlessness and people getting lit on fire in my vampire movies.

But I had a bit of a problem with this: every aspect of the vampirism is consistent with viral or other non-supernatural vampirism except that they don’t show up in mirrors. And the mirror thing isn’t important to the plot in any way. So I feel like they sacrificed conceptual consistency for the sake of a cool shot where you see his suit but not him in the rear view mirror of his car.

Another place where they do that, only I didn’t notice until I’d thought about it for a while, is that Ed’s brother — one of the gung-ho soldier boys — tries to give him a bottle of blood for his birthday and he makes a big deal about “I don’t drink human blood!” But since we’ve seen that the vampires start to degenerate into disgusting and mindless vaguely Nosferatu-like mutants after only a couple of weeks without blood, clearly he’s been living on something — animal blood? Because if he’s been drinking animal blood, that makes the blood-farmed humans thing even more evil, but it also kind of undoes the whole starvation crisis thing. Unless they’re running out of animal blood too. Or does Ed mean that he doesn’t drink human blood anymore? Starting today?

Anyway, the only real point to the scene is that Ed and his brother get in a fight and the bottle of blood gets smashed, so they could easily have been fighting about something else.

As a long-time consumer of vampire-related entertainment, I have to give the movie props for doing something that I have never seen before: the human characters are sexier than the vampires.

Possibly this is because the vampires all have these yellow eyes which I now associate with the Twilight vampires, the least sexy vampires ever. Also, the humans are badass crossbow-toting rebels, while the vampires are obedient (but well-dressed!) suits.

Also, in this world, the vampires have no motive for seduction, but the humans do.

I think it’s actually deliberate, based on Mr. Hawke himself. When he was a vampire I kept noticing his weird teeth, but once he was a human I kept noticing his awesome cheekbones. I don’t think that was an accident. And it’s a nice inverse of the typical vampire fiction transformation.

And I think it works for much the same reason. As a vampire he is constrained, rigid, isolated, out of touch with his own body, powerless, kind of beaten down. After becoming human again, he is full of purpose and sensuality, basking in sunrises and taking the hand of the human rebel chick, which I think is maybe the first time in the whole movie that he has touched another person.

So, anyway, that part worked for me.

What worked less well was the final denouement. It’s a bit disappointing, really, as it reaches for too many obvious action-movie cliches and loses focus on resolving the story that we’ve actually been watching up until now. There are at least two interesting family dynamics — Ed and his brother, ruthless CEO Sam Neil (in full-on scene-chewing evilness that reminded me of the time he played the Antichrist) and his daughter — that end up too sketchy to have much emotional impact. And the various betrayals and what should be surprises don’t have a lot of punch.

The movie toys with a number of potentially fascinating themes that end up going mostly nowhere — the corporation as vampire, the idea that society is really only a few meals away from complete anarchy, the natural resources metaphor, the idea of what it actually means to be human. They are sufficient to make the movie more interesting than many horror/SF movies, but not enough to really deliver the pizza.

Overall, I felt like the movie could have been improved enormously with just a bit more of something — attention to detail? Emotional focus? Spirit of fun?

It seems like it has all the right elements, mostly assembled correctly, but it lacks that certain something that makes it pop, like a Thai curry made without fish sauce.

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