Ethical vampires practicing abstinence from human blood isn’t a premise I easily buy into. My attitude may be an unfortunate side effect from the entertaining, if silly Twilight films. But I can put aside my skepticism for a story with intriguing ideas and parallels to our own real-world challenges. On first impression, Daybreakers appears to be such a story. It introduces political, environmental, social, even religious themes. But instead of exploring them fully, the film veers off into the action realm with lots of riveting chase scenes, gun fire, and other messy physical confrontations. Not that going that way is wrong. It’s just that it is possible for thought-provoking views to co-exist with amped up action-adventure thrills in the same movie.
In 2019, it’s a vampires’ world. Nine years prior, a public health crisis has transformed most of the human population into vampires. But the human blood supply is running out. Bromley Marks Corporation, the sole blood harvester and supplier, works for an answer to the problem. The solution? Manufacture a blood substitute, an endeavor hematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) hopes will save the human species from extinction. However, his motives differ from that of his employer, CEO Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), who is banking on the prospect a viable substitute will up the price of human blood for those vampires willing and able to pay the big bucks for the real thing. Without a blood substitute, blood deprivation will turn the vampires into unrecognizable and mindless demons known as the “sub-siders” who live in the underbelly of vampire society.
Dalton is that rare breed of individual, a vampire with a conscience. He won’t feed on humans, preferring to get his nourishment from animals. One night, he literally crashes into a carload of rebel humans. One of them, Audrey (Claudia Karvan), introduces Dalton to the group’s leader Elvis (Willem Dafoe), a former vampire cured of vampirism. Dalton joins the group in their bid to save the human race.
As expected, the film’s blood content is high and there’s plenty of it on display here; lots of torn limbs, eviscerated torsos, and decapitated bodies. In one scene, the poor test subject for the blood substitute erupts like a volcano. Thankfully, Daybreakers wasn’t filmed in 3D — even though that’s the perfect format for it. In fact, the blood splatter was so over the top, I laughed during the worst of it. I simply could not take it seriously.
Hawke and Dafoe offer up sincere and satisfying performances, as does Michael Dorman who plays Dalton’s hot-headed, dead-and-loving-it younger brother Frankie. Sam Neill, on the other hand, comes off like a bad imitation of Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith in The Matrix.
The film’s color palette of gun-metal blues, grays, whites, and blacks seems the perfect choice for a world as lifeless and soulless and bloodless as the vampires who inhabit it. They exist in a perpetual, tight-lidded landscape of darkness, literally and metaphorically; a long, endless night.
It’s a shame the filmmakers didn’t dig into the thematic content in this story. The narrative echoes the many crises we are struggling with today. Here we see the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, the “resource divide” for lack of a better term, whether those resources are food, housing, healthcare, or in the case of Daybreakers, human blood. The plight of the sub-siders could be read as the plight of the homeless or of people ravaged by disease who lack access to healthcare and prescription medication. Environmental politics emerges as another theme when we consider the parallel between ourselves, sucking the life’s “blood” out of the environment, and the rapacious vampires’ consumption of the dwindling blood supply.
That light and blood, paradoxically, bring about the salvation of the human race and lead the vampires from darkness into the light, alludes to Christian symbolism. Unfortunately, the filmmakers chose physical action over a serious meditation on all these themes and ideas. To its credit, Daybreakers is a well directed thriller with strong performances, definitely worth the price of a ticket. But it lacks the intellectual heft that could have made it a memorable, relevant film.