Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On DVD: "Daybreakers"

So are we about done with all the vampire shit already? Between the Twilight movies and the Underworld movies and Rise: Blood Hunter and Cirque Du Freak and The Vampire Diaries, I’ve just about had my fill; maybe some inventive filmmaker is going to come along with a fresh take on this very stale fad, though it’s dubious. But even if we weren’t in the midst of a tiring glut of vampire action, the Spierig Brothers’ Daybreakers would still be a lousy movie.

It’s the kind of picture whose badness is right out front, from its very first scene, a pre-title sequence in which a young vampire girl leaves a suicide note and then goes out to burn up in the rising sun, via an astonishingly shoddy special effect. The scene doesn’t have much of anything to do with the rest of the narrative; in retrospect, it seems to primarily exist for the purpose of its giant close-up of her desk calendar, which helpfully informs us that it is April, 2019.

On to the main story. It is, indeed, 2019, a bleak future world (is there any other kind?) in which the vampires have taken over, and humans are hunted and farmed for blood, which is running dangerously low. Scientist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) works for a pharmaceutical company, run by Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), whose evilness is inferred by the presence of his giant cigar. Dalton is attempting to create a synthetic blood substitute, though his trials aren’t going well, based on the number of heads exploding at them (okay, it’s just one, but still…).

Edward’s brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) is an army vampire hunter, but they’ve got all kind of issues, which are spilled out clumsily in their first shared scene; it’s the worst kind of overwrought melodrama and obvious exposition imaginable, interrupted only by a seemingly random attack from a horrifyingly mutated vampire (it’s an out-of-nowhere end to the scene, but certainly better than more of that turgid dialogue).

Plot, plot, plot. Edward encounters a group of renegade humans, led by Willem Dafoe, whose presence in a film like this is basically a foregone conclusion (“Lionel Cormac,” he announces, jutting out his hand, “my friends call me Elvis”). Come to find out, Lionel—sorry, Elvis—was a vampire who turned back into a human after a bizarre accident, which Edward attempts to replicate. His one shot at this experiment is intercut with the approach of the army in an attempt to create tension, but since we’ve got no bearings of the environment, no sense of where things are happening in relation to each other, it basically kills the suspense.

The picture is full of novice screw-ups like that, which we’re presumably supposed to not notice since we’re so overwhelmed by the snazzy aesthetics. Granted, the film does have a distinctive look—provided you haven’t seen Dark City. Otherwise, the self-conscious attempts at stylization and cool are mostly ridiculous, made worse because the film is taking itself so very, very seriously. One ridiculous scene after another is played absolutely straight, with the only desperate stabs at humor coming from groaner lines like “Life’s a bitch, and then you don’t die” and “Being human is about as safe as bare-backin’ a five-dollar whore!” Paging George S. Kaufman.

The special effects are mostly laughable and the acting is similarly unimpressive; Hawke’s primary direction appears to have been to widen his eyes for a better view of his colored contact lenses. The film’s two-plus year journey to the screen caused its central premise to be badly undercut by HBO’s True Blood; both utilize some of the same concepts (open vampirism, synthetic blood), but Daybreakers is sorely missing that show’s eroticism and/or its clever social satire.

The film does have a couple of good gross-out scares, and the occasional flash of inspiration (like the army devouring itself, or the business with the shaft of daylight in Edward’s car during the chase scene). But it’s all basically slick and stupid. When it arrives at its clunky climax, the filmmakers trot out the full battery of clich├ęs—cars smashing through plate glass windows, the kidnapping of the heroine, and a last-minute save by a supporting character, revealed in a manner so trite and ludicrous, someone at my screening laughed out loud. Okay, it was me.

"Daybreakers" is out today on DVD and Blu-ray.

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