Monday, January 11, 2010

[Movie Review] Daybreakers

Vampires that both bite and suck

I found the premise of this movie to be fascinating: the human population has been subjected to a plague that causes vampirism, and 95% of the world’s people have been infected in the last ten years. Society has changed dramatically – people still go about their business, but they do it at night, or by using underground tunnels and cars that are modified with sun-shields and cameras for daytime driving. There are even cameras built into the back of the sun-visors for primping, since obviously a vampire can’t just look at themselves in the mirror.

Also, humans are hunted prey. You see, vampires can sort of survive on animal blood, but they really need at least some human blood or they risk turning into monstrous “subsiders” – feral bat-like creatures with no rational minds, just a thirst for blood. And this relates directly to the main problem of the movie – there aren’t many humans left, and within a month the vampires will completely run out of human blood.

The story revolves around Ethan Hawke’s character Edward Dalton, a scientists searching for an artificial blood-substitute. He works for the gigantic Bromley-Marks Pharmaceuticals, a corporation that researches synthetic blood and also helps to harvest real blood from captured humans (who are stored, unconscious, in a “blood bank”). Sam Neill plays Charles Bromley, the head of Bromley-Marks.

I haven’t been as excited to see a movie in a long time as I was to see Daybreakers. That may have been a problem, because I found that I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to, and I can’t be sure if it was entirely because of weaknesses in the film or because my expectations were just too high.

Still, Daybreakers did a LOT of stuff right. The writer/director team of the Spierig Brothers was very detailed in creating a believable vampire world of 2019. They got the atmosphere dead-on, from the advertisements on the walls of the subway to the visual effects of vampires exploding in a burst of flame when killed. They even had little touches, such as showing the scars on many of the vampires from where they’d originally been bitten to be turned into vampires.

My problems with the movie were several. First off, Neill’s character was a mess, vacillating around about what he wanted and what was important to his character and often coming off as just evil for the sake of being the story’s villain. Ultimately, every major plot thread that directly involved Bromley was weakened by making him a cardboard-cutout villain with no consistency and little rationality. If he’d had a mustache, he’d have twirled it, and it turned me off.

Also, there were a few overly-convenient plot devices, particularly one near the end when not one but two heroic main characters (who should have been together, by the way) come bursting onto the scene in the nick of time to save the day. It’s weak writing and I hate it. We should be better than that in our filmmaking by now. Lastly, in terms of nitpicking, I though the ending was generally weak and could have been made stronger with probably 20-30 seconds of additional footage clarifying the situation as it stood at the film’s conclusion. I don’t want to spoil anything, but as it stands it didn’t work well for me.

Overall, it wasn’t really a bad sci-fi vampire movie. In terms of production quality it was certainly higher than a lot of the B-grade monster movies that have come out. And it’s not a teen-angst bodice-ripper like Twilight. These vampires don’t sparkle, and the first five minutes of the film lets you know that it’s not screwing around. The gore was a bit over the top, which didn’t bother me because it was gore, it just bothered me because it was so prevalent that it distracted me. I’ll say this, though – I felt so down about not enjoying the movie as much as I’d wanted to that the next day I put in John Carpenter’s Vampires and then I felt MUCH better. THAT’s a kick-ass vampire movie right there, and as stylish, futuristic and thoughtful as Daybreakers was in places (it certainly tried to make a much deeper point about the human condition and environmental issues than Vampires did), it didn’t entertain me half as much as Carpenter’s movie.

I spent a fair bit of time over the weekend thinking about Daybreakers, reading other reviews, and even seeking out the opinion of my fellow geeks at a discussion forum to make sure I hadn’t overlooked something about Daybreakers that was truly brilliant or which had caused me to like the movie less than I should have. If you look around, you’ll find that a LOT of other reviewers and film critics seem to like Daybreakers much more than I did, but their reviews generally seem to agree with most of my criticisms. The difference is that they weakened the movie for me, whereas the other critics just seemed to shrug them off and dismiss them as irrelevant or charming or whatever. So don’t take my review as gospel – I seem to like this movie less than many people. But to me it was weaker than it should have been, weaker than it needed to be, and not as good as it deserved to be. It’s a shame that after a lot of masterful creativity in how they told the story, the Spierig Brothers fell down on the story itself. I rate it a B- at best, and I don’t have it on my “buy” list of future DVDs.

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