TIFF09 REVIEW: Daybreakers [2009]

“Humans were offered a chance to assimilate; they refused”

There really is nothing more invigorating than a TIFF Midnight Madness screening. The atmosphere is alive with genre fans anxiously waiting to see some blood, gore, and dismemberment. I fortunately was able to get tickets for the world premiere of the new vampire flick Daybreakers in just that setting. Introduced by twin brother directors, Michael and Peter Spierig, the audience was treated to a great time, starting from one brother speaking aloud that he was drunk, “It’s the best way to watch this movie.” Well I’m not quite sure about that being I was sitting in a theatre at midnight after a day that saw me watching four other films from 9:00 that morning on. Even this exhausted guy managed to keep his eyes open for the carnage and death-dealing mixed with just the right amounts of intelligent storytelling. Okay, so maybe my fatigue created its own euphoric state, resembling a drunken one. If that’s the case, then maybe Spierig was correct. Either way, this slick action/horror reminded me of the awesome Equilibrium in style, utilizing brand new technology to ease the life of vampires—the healthy ones that is, not those Nosferatu looking creepers starving for blood.

The premise goes as follows: It is 2019 and most everyone has become a vampire. Their power and numbers become so vast that humans quickly go to the minority, hunted as cattle to use for sustenance and harvested for blood. Mankind has become extinct and although the government and scientists are working around the clock for a synthetic substitute, vampires are dying left and right. But before they do, the starvation process mutates them into winged creatures with pointy ears and shriveled skin, resembling those creatures of the dark we might have seen years ago; definitely not the refined ones as in “True Blood”. I shouldn’t use that comparison too much, however, as these vamps, while intelligent creatures “living and breathing” with the only difference from humans being their need for blood and fear of the sun, are more hybrids with the legends Hollywood has created. For example, early on we see our lead Hematologist, played by Ethan Hawke, mysteriously absent from his car’s sideview mirror, a myth not true in the HBO series.

Some of the population has become sympathetic to the plight of the humans—they were one once after all. Among these is Hawke’s character, a scientist doing his best to create a way to stay alive without the need of the dying race. His hopes are that once an alternative is found, the humans will be able to repopulate and live in harmony with them, hunting no longer necessary. That’s all well and good, but you can’t tell a bloodthirsty creature to stop lusting for a kill, and the government, it would seem, doesn’t want to either. Sam Neill plays the man orchestrating it all; I’m not sure if they blatantly call him it or not, but, for all intents and purposes, he is the President. Watching his numbers slowly devolve into uncontrollable beasts, monsters not even they can contain, his desire for a synthetic blood is at an all-time high. The necessity is so great that a trial is held prematurely, resulting in a great bloody mess, one the audience lapped up and cheered jubilantly for.

Seeing that the vampires have lost all resemblance of their former selves, Hawke’s Edward takes it upon himself to get out while he can, stumbling upon a band of humans, not surprisingly untrusting in his attempt to hide them from the authorities. When they see he is a man of his word and a friend to the cause, Edward is shown the holy grail of humanity’s last hope for survival, a man that has become a man once more, changed back from the vampiric state that once consumed him. As subject zero, Hawke must use his body and story to figure out a cure to the plague that has ravaged Earth. The solution may no longer be a need for a blood substitute, but now a way to turn everyone back into humans.

The story is strong and entertaining throughout despite its obvious ending and reconciliation. However, it is what makes up the duration that puts the film above the normal vampire action romp. I love the technology that has been invented, making life entirely vampire-proof. Every building in the cities have been fitted with connecting tunnels so people may move to and fro without the threat of sun, every window is equipped with a black out shutter, and cars are allowed to go into lockdown with front and side monitors for daytime driving. The brainstorming session to come up with these gadgets had to have been a ton of fun. I can just imagine giant white boards outlining each shortcoming to the vampire and then the multitude of ways to solve them. It is a decade of work by an increasingly growing population, so the fact that it all allows for the 24/7 travel of a vampire makes sense. They are the new humans, so a way to work long hours and not have to hibernate half the day away is key.

Some problems do exist in the need to glamorize and make everything visually interesting. One scene in particular looks beautiful, but makes you question the validity of survival in that situation. It’s a daytime meeting between Hawke, (who by the way plays the role perfectly; he does it seriously, a necessity for his Edward to be taken realistically as the Samaritan he is), and a rebel fighter played by Willem Dafoe, (again perfect, but so over-the-top that each one-liner met with rapturous applause, which could have also been because he was in the audience watching). Hawke is directed to park under a tree and get out to talk, deftly avoiding the rays of light peaking through the leaves above him. I guess only direct sunlight affects them. But hey, this is a horror film looking to entertain; one can’t take those things too seriously. It’s all about the exploding bodies, decapitated heads, and slomotion mass of humanity with biting, blood, and violence at the end—a truly stunning scene. The Spierigs play it right at every turn, making a helluva good time in a compact 98 minutes that could surprise the box office come January.

Daybreakers 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

photography:
Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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