Sunday, 14 February 2010

Film Review: Daybreakers

I don't know that I've ever seen an awful sci-fi film start so well as Daybreakers does. For the first 15 minutes, I will admit to idly entertaining the thought that the Spierig brothers had made the best vampire flick in recent memory. A succession of quick, quiet cuts introduce the concept behind Daybreakers brilliantly: it's 2019 and vampires have become the dominant species on Earth. Majority rules, and so those humans who remain unchanged are fair game, but with so few purebloods left to chow down on, the question of a sustainable supply of sustenance for the vamps grows more pressing by the day.

Ethan Hawke is Ed Dalton, a hematologist for a corporation headed by wicked thespian Sam Neill whose stock-in-trade is the manufacture of bags of blood siphoned of living humans kept in a comatose state and constantly bled in an horrific factory that brings to mind - one imagines deliberately so - the birthing pools in which Neo awakens in The Matrix. Ed, however, is not so keen to hunt the few remaining humans to extinction in the search for an alternative source of food for the hungry vamps at large, so when he hears of a cure for the vampire plague, he must risk everything to see if there's any truth to the tales of a trio of rebel humans.

That's the high concept at the heart of Daybreakers, and however far-fetched it is, the first 15 minutes of the film convey the strange, new, white and blue neon-lit world well. The premise conveys no small amount of promise, but sadly, the Spierig Brothers singlehandedly set about breaking that promise the moment the near-silent opening sequence is over. The script, for one thing, is repugnant, content to shoehorn gems like "life's a bitch and then you don't die" into dialogue that is either insultingly expositional or utterly bland; rarely does it reveal anything so superfluous as a sense of character.

In fact, the characters that populate the Aussie filmmaking duo's latest film are little more than plot devices. Their actions are only every purposeful in terms of shuffling Daybreakers' tiresome script along to the next plot point - which is, invariably, one ill-executed set-piece or another. No, scratch that; ill-executed isn't quite the right description. From a technical standpoint, the Spierig brothers execute their set pieces adequately enough. Certainly Daybreakers looks good for the most part, considering its modest budget. Its realisation of a world in which the natural order has been turned upside down is among its most convincing aspects.

Sadly, the actual action that punctuates Daybreakers is like a blunt knitting needle through a flat balloon. There's no bang to any of it, no panache whatsoever. It's hard, first of all, to convey any sense of peril when you simply don't care who lives or dies, but beyond that there's a a curious lack of vibrancy in all things, a forlorn limpness to the MTV-style editing and an excessiveness that simply doesn't fit with the self-serious tone of the rest of the film. In one scene, for instance, an armoured truck drives into a steel column, but the column only shatters the windscreen; unless it's packed to the gunnels full of dynamite, there's simply no need for the explosion of fire and smelted innards that shoot out of the rear window thereafter.

Nor are the performances anything to write home about. Your cast can be as strong as you like: if a director doesn't know what he wants from his actors, he simply doesn't stand a chance of getting it. Ethan Hawke is an suitable enough leading man, although he flops about like a goateed Prince Charming a bit too much for my liking. Sam Neill is reasonably menacing but hardly a stand-out. One-time Farscape guest star Claudia Karvan is fine; so, for that matter, are her nipples, which some wardrobe wizard seems to have attacked with ice cubes given how erect they always are. The real disappointment is Willem Dafoe, who intermittently tries and fails to pull off an ill-conceived drawl which woefully undercuts his already paper-thin character.

One way or another, Daybreakers is nothing to write home about. As speculative cinema, it's a disappointment: a fantastic premise and a strong start sat out on the porch with a pistol between its teeth. As a bit of fun, it's only passable. The Spierig brothers would have succeeded a great deal more by that latter measure if only Daybreakers wasn't so full of its own, exponentially less convincing sense of profundity.


  1. I don't think you can claim Sam Neill as British...

    Bloody SF films, eh? They always let you down. I was quite taken by the trailer for this but I've learnt my lesson by now.

  2. Oh well, so much for that one. I had high hopes for it too.

    I thought the remake of "The Day The Earth Stood Still" started really well before becoming dreadful after about 15 minutes too.

  3. @ Martin - Can't I? Awww. Well, I stand corrected; Neill's just one of those actor types with command and gravitas... I kind of assumed.

  4. A shame. I thought this film looked promising, and possibly even scary, but after reading this review I'm no longer certain. I suppose I'll wait for a DVD release and give it a go.

    Thanks for the review.

  5. Yeah. I was kinda watching this one's progress, and I'd decided to stay away for obvious reasons.