Friday, January 15, 2010

'Daybreakers' offers up vampires with a twist

Thanks to the “Twilight” series and the HBO show “True Blood,” vampires are back and hotter than ever, but “Daybreakers” isn't merely a film attempting to cash in on the latest trend. It is a fresh take on vampire mythology.

Set in 2019, a virus has transformed the vast majority of the population into vampires. So, if we survive the world ending in 2012 we have an eternity as vampires to look forward to. But you better hope you become a vampire because in this future the remaining humans are hunted and harvested for their blood.

Unlike the “vegetarian” vampires of the “Twilight” universe, these vampires can't survive on animal blood alone, without human blood they transform into mindless bat-like creatures. With humanity nearing extinction, a new blood source needs to be found.

Ethan Hawke stars as a vampire named Edward — clearly the name of choice for vampires right now — who is attempting to find a synthetic blood to little avail.
Edward is sympathetic to humanity and more than willing to help when he is targeted by a survivalist group of humans lead by Willem Dafoe, especially when informed they may have a cure for vampirism.

Writer/directors The Spierig Brothers have created a fully realized world full of little touches that make a big difference. They start from a strong central idea, not only are vampires the majority, but they live life much the same way they did as humans, except their work day begins at night fall. Sure, they have blood in their coffee instead of cream, but not much has really changed.

One of the most ingenious ideas of the film is that cars can enter a day-mode that blocks all the windows and allows vampires to see via video cameras. There's a fantastic car chase when Hawke first meets up with Dafoe. As they are pursued, bullet holes create deadly beams of light adding an extra level of tension to what would've been a run-of-the mill car chase.

In some ways the film recalls “Gattaca,” a film set in a future where genetically altered perfect people are seen as “valid” and normal people are as “invalid.” Hawke also starred in that film and perhaps it is only his presence that brings it mind. Although very different in style, both films cover similar territory.

As with “Gattaca,” Hawke is very good at playing a man who is part of society he hates, but must play along. When he is required to go hero it works as it is an extension of his character rather than an arbitrary plot development.

Dafoe is a scene stealer tossing out one-liners in southern drawl. He is an actor like Christopher Walken who has a way of saying a line like no one else. The only other actor of note is Sam Neill as the head of the corporation that Hawke works for. He is the film's villain, but Neill doesn't play him as a one-note baddie. Neill creates menace in his quiet, business-like manner, but he is not entirely unsympathetic.

Although this is a smarter than the average action-horror film, it is still very much a B-movie. This is not a negative. The film embraces aspects of the B-movie — extreme gore and cheesy one liners — and blends them with smart ideas and clever writing. The film updates vampires, but includes familiar motifs such as death by wood stakes. It isn't a perfect mix, but the care and intellect of the filmmakers helps make this fun entertainment.

Be forewarned though, this movie is not for the squeamish. There is plenty of exploding heads, decapitations, flesh ripping and projectile vomiting. It is all done in an over-the-top fashion, but even so, if blood and guts isn't your cup of tea then you best stay away. Horror fans, though, who find the sparkly vampires of “Twilight” to be nauseating will be thrilled.

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