There's no way to talk about this without discussing the ending, so don't read on if that's an issue.
When I saw the trailer for Daybreakers, it went on to my must see list. I wasn't for one moment deceived into thinking that it was going to be great art, it was just that it had Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill, it had an interesting take on vampires and it looked like there would be lots of the Human Resistance attacking the vampires.
I'm devastated to report that there's a quite noticeable shortage of resistance-on-vampire action. For your human death squad whacking vampire needs, I have to direct you to aisle six and John Carpenter's Vampire$(TM) which is the actual legal title of the damn movie. Also, once they clear out the first vamp nest, stop watching, because the film kind of blows after that.
While Daybreakers is a little short on action, there is, however, a surprising amount of pure cleverness.
Daybreakers is what I think of as a one-joke movie, (I think in Hollywood they call this high concept, but one-joke is a lot truer to what's usually going on) where the joke is what if vampires were the majority? In fact,most serious stabs at the vampire genre have to dance around this problem quite a bit. Vampires live forever and everyone they bite can turn into a vampire, and they're crazy hard to kill. So logically, there ought to be nothing else after a while, what with all the guys that get turned never going away and such. Now that kind of logic just ruins the story, so the writers usually come up with some handwave that either makes vampires easy to kill, or hard to make or both. Daybreakers decides to run in the opposite direction, and shows us a world where within ten years of the first vampire getting turned, there's so few humans left that they have to be farmed and the total known supply of human blood is expected to run out within a month.
So there's a crisis, but it faces the bad guys. And just to make the crisis more interesting, once a vampire hasn't had any juicy delicious blood for a while, he or she starts devolving into nosferatu. So it's not just that they're going to starve; along the way they're going to turn into mindless horrible looking killing machines who will attack everything around them. Whee. And standing between vampirekind and this undesirable outcome is Ethan Hawke's terribly ethical reseearch scientist and his effort to come up with a blood substitute. No pressure, then.
The movie has a lot of fun setting out its milieu; no-one goes out in daylight, blood's replaced (or more accurately been added to) coffee, and life goes on with little changes like everyone working at night and the city being honeycombed with subwalks so that vampires can get around during daylight. In this vision, vampirism gives you little fangs (they must have had to loop everyone's dialogue) yellow eyes, a tendency to explode when staked and catch fire in strong direct sunlight, but not a lot of the other popular tropes. No-one, for example, falls asleep at dawn, and no-one needs to sleep in a coffin. Garlic and silver don't seem to have been outlawed either. And while they dodge daylight, it looks as though only direct contact of an actual beam of light on their skin is anything to worry about, which makes it perhaps a little too easy for the vampires to be out and about in the day time.
But the initial fun's in the little touches; the massively adapted vehicles which can drive in daylight by using video feeds into the darkened interior, the by-the-way observation that "vampiric small animals unaware of their condition are now the leading cause of forest fires" and above all in the way that normal American corporate life isn't shown to have changed in its essential particulars just because practically everyone in gainful employment is a bloodsucking fiend.
Earlier I mentioned the way in which writers often have to tweak the powers of their vampires to stop them from being so dangerous as to be unstoppable; Daybreakers has an ingenious tweak to level the playing field between living and undead; humans are now so scarce that killing one is out of the question and the army has to be equipped with non-lethal weapons so as to capture them alive; the humans aren't so bothered about inflicting casualties, but of course need to get a dead centre hit with a crossbow. This is clever and internally consistent, though unfortunately there's only one stand up fight to let us see this in action and it ends badly for the humans anyway. And being taken alive is no picnic; we don't see any of them again.
So you have the clever opening, which is unfortunately followed by a whole bunch of middle in which there's an annoying paucity of explosions. There is the cute discovery that the vampire army can work in daylight by using light proof armour, which is endearingly kludgy in its approach to helmets, but that aside it's a bit of a trudge until you get past the discovery that there's a cure for vampirism, which boils down to extreme sunbathing with someone on hand to put you out just before you go extra crispy. Every bit as much fun as it sounds, so you're kind of wondering if Ethan's going to be able to market this to his corporate bosses.
At this point the film feels like it's spinning its wheels a bit, because the human resistance, who are more like refugees than resistance, haven't been making a great fist of things and our heroes have been whittled down to three; two ex-vamps and one human, versus well everyone else in the movie more or less. Then the ex-vamps get cornered, and one of them is fanged up, and we get what I thought at the time was a very lame reveal; that if vamp who's been turned back into a human gets bitten, the vampire who did the biting gets turned back into a human. Which seemed almost as convenient as the fix for vampirism in Near Dark without having nearly as cool a movie in back of it to save it from lameness.
I judged too soon, because in a moment of sublime genius, Ethan Hawke walks back into corporate HQ and goads Sam Neill into biting him. Whereupon Sam Neill turns into a human, which still didn't strike me as being much of an improvement, until Ethan bundles him into a lift and sends him down the basement where thirty hungry vampire soldiers were getting ready to come up. And when they see Sam, looking just like a tasty human - well there's a blood famine and here's a Big Mac. They tear into Sam, and in turn revert to human - at which point they're tasty snacks to the next group of vampires to show up - and suddenly it's very elegant because here's a completely plausible way in which just one ex-vamp can turn the whole population back into ordinary humans - albeit at the cost of most of those humans lasting about as long as a happy meal at a six year old's birthday party. Russian in its simplicity. It's the first time in ages that I've seen a movie with a last minute fix for a universal problem which actually had a plausible delivery mechanism for the last minute fix and a built in way to limit the problem in the future. Sheer genius.
I often wonder what's going through Ethan Hawke's mind when he does action movies because, a) he's too good for them and b) he's not actually good in them. He's not that kind of an actor; he just isn't right for action roles. He's clearly a thoughtful person in real life and in action films he makes a serious effort to portray a realistic intelligent person wrestling with a problem. As a result, he's usually completely out of place and so it plays out in Daybreakers. Willem Dafoe is capable of almost anything, which unfortunately means that he's capable of showing up with an expression of complete disinterest on his face and sleepwalking through a whole movie where he ought in fact to be lighting up the room. In Daybreakers, he isn't really breaking a sweat, but at least he's awake. Sam Neill, on the other hand, can add yet another to his showcase of bastard-coated bastards with creamy bastard filling. Sam's fun as a good guy, but he's always more fun as a bad guy. He has the face and the voice for devilry, and he does a wonderful turn here as someone who slowly reveals layers of inner complexity, for values of complexity that equal jawdropping wickedness. Great fun, and completely coherent. He's bad, until you realise that he's worse, until you realise that he's much worse, until you realise that he's not only beyond redemption but blissfully unaware that redemption is necessary. All without raising his voice. He bottoms out nicely with his explanation that Ethan's work on blood substitutes and cures and what have you is all very well, but what Sam's company is interested in is repeat business, so there'll be no more talk of curing vampires, and full steam ahead on synthetic blood, and for the better-off types, genuine fresh human blood - at the appropriate premium.
I have to say that while I enjoyed the satirical intent behind depicting profit driven corporations and exploitation of repeat business and helpless resources as the logical line of work for vampires, I did wonder whether mere money would continue to drive the greedy in a world where a lot of what humans need and pay for has become largely unnecessary. You're dead; you don't eat, breathe, sleep much, sweat or feel hot or cold. All you need - though you need it badly - is blood. An awful lot of the conventional economy would collapse. What would money actually be for at that point?
So hats off to the Spierig Brothers for a great idea for the milieu and a genuinely clever punchline, but they have to lose some points for not having enough meat to the middle. And for hiring Ethan Hawke when there were better things he could have been doing.