Monday, May 17, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Daybreakers (2010)

I don't write these words lightly, but the 2010 vampire horror film Daybreakers boasts a premise worthy of Rod Serling and his famous creation, The Twilight Zone.

This film by the Spiereg brothers involves a "new world order" of the year 2019. A global pandemic has toppled humanity, transforming people everywhere into glowing-eyed blood-suckers. The world shuts down by daylight, and civilized society thrives by night.

But ironically, it's much the same world. Except that now the coffee shops serve blood. Otherwise, there's still cable news, international warfare, and conspicuous consumption. Big corporations (and Big Pharma, specifically) are still calling the shots.

A few remaining humans have resisted assimilation into the ranks of the undead and are now being "farmed" by the hungry vampire businesses for their precious blood. Meanwhile, human blood supplies run perilously, irrevocably low. There's just enough human blood left to feed the population for a month.

And when vampires can't drink blood, they physically and mentally devolve into monstrous, mindless bat-like things called "Subsiders." A threat to national security, these Subsiders are ruthlessly put down by the U.S. Military. (And if you think about it a little, the Subsiders are not just former vampires, but former humans too!)

Many aspects of this concept struck me as impressive. The first is that it relates to George A. Romero's artistic impetus for creating his Night of the Living Dead film franchise in the first place.

Decades ago, Romero wrote an unpublished story called "Anubis." In the opening gambit (which ultimately became the 1968 film) a zombie was chased and exterminated by armed human soldiers while fleeing over a hill. Then, during the last shocking scene of the story, another solitary figure ran across that same hill. But the social order had flipped. The pursuer was now the pursued. "We see it's an army of zombies, chasing a human with an injured, bleeding leg," Romero noted in The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh, (Paul R. Gagne, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1987, page 24).

The tale was an allegory, Romero specifically suggested, one about shifting social orders. It was about how there was this massive change, this massive revolution. Yet in some very important ways, things remained absolutely the same. I should note too that Romero was also greatly inspired by Richard Matheson's 1954 vampire tale, I Am Legend, and Matheson's idea of a new social order and a lone human attempting to defy it.

Daybreakers represents a smart, high-tech, visually-adroit variation on this theme. It stakes out some original territory too, in part because the point of attack is different. Night involved the onset of the crisis point, the origination of a new, alien population in America and the scatter-shot, confused human response to this invasion. I Am Legend began at the end; when it was all over for mankind except the crying; when the lone human survivor, Neville, was but a Boogeyman, a night-time story used to scare vampire kiddies. But importantly, the book still adopted Neville's human perspective in his efforts to reverse the disease that turned humans into vampires.

Daybreakers doesn't begin with the pandemic that changes man into literal vampires; and it doesn't start with a human being fighting back, either. Instead, the movie opens with "the new normal," with the work-routine of a vampire hematologist, Edward (Ethan Hawke). He is working hard on a problem in his capacity as a scientist at Bromley Marks: creating a blood-substitute that can feed the starving vampire population of the world.

Interestingly, the meek Edward is depicted in the film as the equivalent of a human vegetarian. He "pities" the humans and doesn't drink their blood, believing instead that there is a synthetic alternative, so as to avoid a human holocaust. His all-business boss, Bromley (Sam Neill) isn't so certain. "There will always be those who are willing to pay a little extra for the real thing," he suggests.

The vampire dilemma in Daybreakers reflects our current situation in a clever fashion. In particular, the movie involves resources, and the way that our society uses them up without wide-spread thought of conservation, without thought of replacement. To survive the extinction of humans, the vampire culture in Daybreakers requires a paradigm shift to a new, sustainable way of life. In real life, most of us know about Peak Oil, we know our way of life is unsustainable, and yet -- like the vamps -- we don't change our behavior. The Spill Baby Spill crowd wants to keep gulping down the black blood of the Earth, certain it will last forever. And when it's mostly gone, the lucky rich folk can pay a little extra to gets what's left, and thereby maintain their affluent lifestyle, right? But what about the rest of us "Subsiders?"

Daybreakers is packed with social commentary like that. According to the back story, the vampire "revolution" occurred in 2008. Well now, America itself underwent a dramatic change in leadership in 2008 and the question we face today might be the same question raised in the film. How much, substantively, has changed? We still have talking heads arguing on cable TV, we still have war, and we still have big corporations calling the shots. Even the Subsiders, who can't afford the high-priced blood sold on the free market, seem like a metaphor for the less fortunate among us: the homeless, the poor, those who can't make it in a wealthy, technological society where real wages have been going down for a decade. When people can't get what they want and what they need, do they devolve into irrational monsters, or just Tea Baggers?

Stylistically, Daybreakers proves rather artistic and accomplished too. The world of the vampires is presented in a silvery-blue hue. This metallic color palette eschews depth, color and most importantly, warmth. That's the very quality the vampires lack too; warmth, compassion. By contrast, the human world depicted in the film is one of sun-washed gold and heat; of warmth and natural beauty. The visualizations make for a powerful and clear contrast, and reflect well the story's narrative,

Alas, as is often the case, Daybreakers can't seem to sustain itself on intriguing ideas and good visualizations for its entire running time. Eventually it devolves too, into chases, bloody vampire attacks, and action, action, action. The hackneyed ending is especially a let-down. Commendably, the movie doesn't end with typical Hollywood B.S. -- such as an absolute victory of humanity over the vampires.

But still, the film's final sequence revolves around familiar action cliches that you see coming from a mile away, and depends on pretentious "heroic" shots (in grandiose slow-motion, no less.) The film's final shot of an endless highway provides a good metaphor for the journey still not undertaken (the paradigm-shift towards sustainability just broached, perhaps) but comes after so many mock heroics, so many unbelievable moments, that it seems like too little too late.

In the age of Twilight, vampire movies require a paradigm-shift towards sustainability too, and Daybreakers nearly gets there. At the very least, it's a promising start.

11 comments:

  1. Excellent review, JKM! I have to admit that I found the trailers for this film intriguing but was scared off by many reviews that slammed it. But your review has piqued my curiosity and I may just have to check it out. I think that the overall concept is very interesting and the look of the film seems very cool and stylish.

    What did you think of the acting? That, and the dialogue, seemed to be a bone of contention for a lot of reviewers, if memory serves.

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  2. Boy those teabaggers sure take some hits. "Irrational Monsters"?

    What about Lawbreakers? What about illegal immigrants who cross borders and violate law? There's no respect for the law by them or enforcement or respect of it by our own federal government.

    What about the European populace of Greece who are crumbling under the weight of socialized everything their government can no longer cover, yet they demand and light up the cities ablaze.

    Another bailout has just been rolled out their way. Our blood is in there.

    These vampiric bloodsuckers remind me more of our federal government. Taking, taking and taking more from the working class.

    Eventually there will be nothing left to take.

    I really don't think the teabaggers want anything from the bloodsuckers. They want the Federal government to stop spending and sucking us dry. I can relate to that.

    Unfortunately, these creatures will keep on coming at you.

    Nice review John. Sounds like a cautious recommendation? Yours is the first I've read that has seemingly enjoyed the film. Some have been downright vicious toward it. I'm on the fence still [no pun intended].

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  3. Thanks for the comments!

    J.D. I thought the acting and screenplay were fine. Neill has an interesting arc regarding his human daughter and her eventual disposition. My big problem was with the cliches in the last act. The film does a good job of establishing its world and the rules of that world, but then has a harder time telling a good story. As Sci-Fi Fanatic aptly says, a cautious recommendation.

    Sci-Fi Fanatic: Thanks for the comment. I am responding in detail because I think it's worth enunciating my point of view on Tea Baggers. I say all this respectfully & with friendship.

    First: in fairness I did say "irrational monsters" OR "just Tea Baggers," meaning that I recognize a distinction. Tea Baggers aren't technically slobbering, inhuman vampires.:)

    However, there's a whopping distinction between rational conservative thought(which has an appeal for me, particularly regarding a belief that I live by: you don't spend what you don't have) & many of the abundantly irrational complaints of Tea Baggers.

    For example: Birthers. It has been proven that Obama was born in Hawaii--the state has displayed his birth certificate. Yet Tea Baggers attempt to delegitimize him with this issue. That's irrationality: facts are immaterial.

    Tea Baggers also complain about taxes, which I understand, but again, they direct the anger at Obama. Under his admin., taxes are lower than since 1959. That includes the eras of Reagan & both Bushes. Anger is irrational because it is directed at the wrong guy. Again, facts don't affect many of these people. Did they complain in the streets when Reagan enacted the largest tax hike in American history up to that point in 1986?

    Tea Baggers want smaller, more efficient government. I agree with that too. But the Tea Baggers see it through a partisan lens. Do you know who shrunk the Federal Government the most in the last 50 years? Not Reagan. It was liberal scoundrel, Bill Clinton. And you know who grew the government the most? Conservative stalwart George W. Bush! So again, Tea Baggers are not dealing in fact; rather preconceived partisan notions constructed by a very efficient echo chamber.

    If Tea Baggers want to reduce the deficit, why aren't they proposing defense spending cuts, or arguing against our expensive presence in Afghanistan & Iraq? Reducing the defense budget (as Republican S.O.D. Gates want to do,) will help. So why not get on board there?

    Many thoughtful conservatives (Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bartlett, Gates), trade in fact & reason. I admire the hell out of them for standing up to the irrational arguments of Tea Baggers.

    Listen, I am no rubber stamp for Obama. I'm upset he hasn't looked into torture. I'm disappointed he nominated a Supreme Court justice who looks to expand executive power, & I hate that much of his administration comes from Goldman-Sachs. And DADT should be dropped immediately.

    But Tea Partiers are simply out to get the guy. Obama could announce today that he's ending social entitlements & nominating a pro-life justice to the Supreme Court, & Tea Baggers will still oppose him.

    There's much daylight between what I assume is your position (a good faith conservative perspective) & Tea Baggers. I respect your position. Out of such differences comes fruitful compromise. The Tea Baggers? Not so much.

    When I see them giving credit to Obama for cutting taxes or for reigning in defense spending, I'll know they mean what they say.

    Then, I'll be happy to reconsider. Until then, I will point out that they are a loud, obnoxious, vocal minority not motivated by fact, but by partisanship. Conservatives and liberals should disavow them. Together.

    best,
    JKM

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  4. John,

    I completely agree with you:

    "You don't spend what you don't have". This is very important tenet of life for me.

    "Birthers"- I don't see the point of this one and why it continues. Although I always thought Birthers were different from Tea Baggers, but I really haven't gotten a good handle on the many labels.

    I think the demonstration against taxing is something that has been a gradual build and Obama, Pelosi and Reid are recipients of it to some extent.

    I think your points about Clinton and Bush are certainly valid. I think George Bush was not a conservative and thus did not care for many of his policies. He was fairly weak and ineffective.

    I think you illustrate an important point regarding today's politics and that is staunch partisanship. There is not a constructive dialogue between either side and heels are dug in. I think it will inevitably be our downfall.

    Given your points about the Teabaggers I will certainly keep a watchful eye, but there is much happening within this administration, as it did within the Bush administration, that does not address many of the problems that continue to plague this great nation. I do worry for its future.

    I do consider myself a simple man, living a simple, uncomplicated life. We're not that far apart. Now if only our elected officials could meet in the middle somewhere.

    Thanks for the conversation.

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  5. Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    I totally agree with you, and I appreciate the conversation too.

    Polarization is damaging to everybody -- Americans from both ideological stripes can learn a lot from each other. Honestly, most of my friends are conservative and they are still my friends.

    Right now, something interesting is happening I think, in the UK, with the Conservatives and Lib-Dems actually working together!

    Isn't that amazing? I wonder what common ground they will find, and how that coalition will govern.

    Maybe we can learn from that example. One thing is for certain: as long as we listen to each other and seek to find common ground, there is hope that we can still solve our big problems.

    Where do we start? Maybe in taking money out of elections; maybe in outlawing ALL lobbyists; maybe on insisting that the media do its job and call "bullshit" when either party misrepresents facts.

    I think the media really needs to step up and be a referee in this climate, rather than just sitting back and letting people bark at each other like dogs, without regards to fact.

    All my best,
    JKM

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  6. Ha! That is a great, timely example. The Tory with the Lib Dems. I found that quite amusing. It is interesting.

    This is a huge problem on both fronts:

    lobbyists
    the media

    These two segments are causing major issues. The media is as fractured and polarized as the political parties. It's ashame too, because lobbyists are doing their job too well. The Media isn't doing its job at all.

    I hope the stranglehold will break and I the British situation is a fascinating one to watch.

    Amen brother. I have friends on both side sof the ideological or philosophical isle. I gladly count you among them.

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  7. Sci-Fanatic:

    Ditto! We don't have to agree on everything (even taste in movies...) to be friends.

    I count you as a good friend too.

    regards,
    John

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  8. Another of your fine reviews, John. Like J.D., I was put off on this by the bad reviews it generated, and the fact that it had been in the can awhile before its release. That usually is a sign that the studio doesn't have much confidence in the film. Good to hear that its concept has depth and is worth looking into.

    Also, I very much appreciate the respectful political discourse between Sci-Fi Fanatic and you regarding aspects that affect us all, and are used by too many to divide the populace. Unfortunately, conflict sells (in ratings and $$$ for ads/party coffers) as one presidential historian mentioned on a CSPAN discussion re: our extremely partisan times. I hope reasoned leaders on both sides of the aisle can rise to the level of those commenting here on a cult movie review. We need more of what you two have to offer.

    Thank you for this, my friends.

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  9. Le0pard13:

    Thank you for your beautiful words, my friend. I always appreciate your comments and fellowship as well!

    And Daywalkers ain't bad! In fact, it has some really great stuff in it. If not a great third act...

    best,
    JKM

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  10. Thanks Le0pard13. Cheers. Who knew a little vampire film could force so much conversation. Truth be told, it's the the thoughtful writers and commenters here on this blog that make it happen.

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  11. JK, I just finished watching this, thanks to this review, and had an absolute blast. I didn't think it sustained the level of conceptual genius through the entire film, but I did enjoy the cycle of blood and guilt that made up the ending. Marvelously twisted stuff. Thanks for calling it to my attention.

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