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Decades ago, Romero wrote an unpublished story called "Anubis."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?"
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.