Imagine a world where your life is shrouded in secrecy and fear; fear of the police, of big corporations, and of the vicious public who are baying for your blood. Literally. That is the world of Daybreakers, a high-concept drama that transports us to 2019, a time when vampires rule the streets, and humans fight just to survive. Offering them the distasteful option to be 'assimilated' and turn bloodsucker, the humans declined, and are now hunted so that they can be put in farms - where their blood is harvested. The vampires are looking for an alternative to real blood, but not because they care about the extinction of the human race: only because they're running out of the damn stuff. The vast corporation Bromley Marks has been supplying his superior race with blood for years - ever since a strange plague turned 95% of the human population into vampires - and they need an alternative to heavily subsidise the use of real blood.
One of the lead haematologists working on a decent substitute, Edward Dalton, doesn't really like the way 'his people' are treating humans, and is hoping that his work will ultimately lead to the repopulation of the human race, but his slimy boss - the head of the company, Charles Bromley - has other, more sinister plans. Approached by a group of human rebels, to help them save their species, Dalton's loyalties are pushed to the limit. Will he help his own kind to ensure their survival or will he follow his original human instincts and turn against the vampires?
Daybreakers is a smart idea, an unusual setting, a top premise, but the rest of narrative - honestly - is pretty damn predictable. If you can answer the rather simple (almost rhetorical) question posed above then you will be able to predict just about every plot twist and contrivance in this movie, and therein lays its ultimate flaw. This strange future world, overrun by vampires, is a brilliant idea - hinted at, to varying degrees, in other movies (the alternate ending to Blade, the Resident Evil series, 28 Days/Weeks Later and I Am Omega / I Am Legend all offer up similar concepts), but never really brought to life with this much style and imagination. The filmmakers actually did an internet competition to get concept art for this movie, to help create a decent vision of 'what the future would be like if vampires ruled the world': a clinical, shutters-closed skyscraper-laden daylight landscape, which almost seems uninhabited, paralleled with a frenzied, neon-lit city-that-comes alive imagining of night-time, the only safe time for vampires. The cars (which are, of course, all electric) have special tinted windows and clever video-cameras that play an image to make the vampires feel like they actually have a reflection in the mirror. The adverts for toothpaste now sport a girl with fangs. The subway has become the 'subwalk', a route which vampires can take to traverse the city during daylight hours. The vampire police keep their own kind in check, whilst the military hunt the human survivors and spray them with stun darts so that they can take them back to the blood farms. The blood farms themselves? Well, again, they've been hinted at in the Blade movies, but here they resemble something more on a Matrix scale. It's a rich alternate universe that has been crafted here, and it is - without a doubt - the strongest selling point of the movie.
Unfortunately, after you get over the novelty factor of all of these vampire-tweaked consumables and social observations, and get into the story itself, you find yourself on a sign-post-strewn one-way alley. You know exactly where this is going to go. You know what all of the characters are going to do - long before they do it. And it spoils just about any surprise that the filmmakers hoped would be in store for their audience. For the most part this does not destroy the movie, it just steeps it in mediocrity, but towards the end, where the choices made seem to be veering towards sequel territory - and where the obvious conclusion would have actually worked - they suddenly (and literally) go off in a completely different direction. In fact, the very ending, for many who were sitting on the fence throughout the second and third acts, may well swing the vote. It may well spoil the whole thing.
The cast do their best, but they too are hampered by the marginally shallow narrative and limited dialogue. Of course, it doesn't help that they are mostly playing against type. Ethan Hawke just about pulls off his lead role as the reluctant vampire scientist who sympathises with the plight of humanity, although he is much better suited to dramatic roles - excelling in everything from Gattaca to Brooklyn's Finest - and occasionally seems out of place in this more action-driven sci-fi horror. Sam Neill fares better as the money-grabbing head of Bromley, but then again he's much more suited to playing mischievous, and extremely smug, individuals - so Bromley isn't exactly a far stretch. The girl, Claudia Karvan - a mainstay in Australian TV, like The Secret Life of Us - is frankly terrible, and simply lacks any kind of on-screen presence (at least for the Big Screen). But perhaps the weirdest choice is the leader of one bunch of human rebels. I mean, whose idea was it to cast an ageing Willem Dafoe as the crossbow-toting, Elvis-impersonating future of the human race?! I rate Dafoe in Platoon, To Live and Die in LA, and The Last Temptation of Christ. However he still does plenty of Speed 2-calibre roles and, as his career has gone on, he has chosen the latter more and more often. Daybreakers is not exactly that bad a film for him to be in, it just sees him totally out of place in a role that would have been more suited to the likes of Kurt Russell (in his Snake Plissken days).
A largely Australian production, the Spierig twins from down under do a competent job as Directors, and you excuse some of the flaws because of their relative inexperience with mainstream movies. On the one hand, they have crafted a very interesting and unusual alternate take on the world, which cleverly blends sci-fi, fantasy and horror elements. It is the definition of high concept, and they pull it off far better than the awful likes of similarly-budgeted productions genre fusions like Legion and Doomsday. On the other hand, their inexperience is apparent almost throughout. After the initial opening salvo of compelling vampire-slanted images of society, and after the premise is fully established, things soon become trite and predictable. Scenes don't quite gel, the action never truly rings true and the extreme horror elements they insert feel like they have been slapped into place to cover up the prevalent cracks in their filmmaking. There's some religious symbolism too, but I doubt it'll ring true with even staunch Christians (Baptism in water/fire, resurrection, drinking the blood of Christ to become purified...), and if it was intentional, it is obscured in the action/horror furore.
Even without such a strong premise, Guillermo Del Toro pulled off a similarly-themed story with much more professionalism and panache in his surprisingly good Blade sequel. And he has a much better eye for effective horror than the Spierigs, whose supposedly scary mutated vampire incarnations comes across more like camp variations on Nosferatu, rather than shocking monsters. Still, you can forgive a fair amount given their inexperience and their relatively small budget, you just feel a little disappointed as - in the hands of more veteran horror auteurs - the fantastic premise could have delivered a much more satisfying piece. At least we should be happy that this is the uncut 18-rated version, after the movie was severely censored for its UK cinema release as a 15.
All in all, Daybreakers is an enjoyable sci-fi horror, at its best in its imaginative vision of an alternate future, and undeniably entertaining for much of its relatively short runtime. Swallowed up in the cinemas by the Box Office bulldozer that was Avatar, it deserves more recognition than it got, and can certainly be heralded as a 'nice try', even if it does not fully deliver the goods. The unnecessary, sequel-friendly ending and the incessant predictability do it no favours, but it still manages to just about scratch a 7 just on novelty factor alone. Worth checking out.