Monday, June 16, 2014

Daybreakers: Down With The Capitalist Parasites

Vampire movies are boring. There, I said it. Not all of them, by any means, but I would argue that the overwhelming majority of vampire movies are boring because they present vampires as the romantic heroes with whom we’re supposed to sympathize or as evil geniuses, jaded by centuries of unlife and tormented by the exquisiteness of their predicament. Those aren’t monsters, those are Harlequin novel characters in monster drag or action-movie antiheroes and villains interchangeable with any other. The best vampire movies show them as monsters - as being damn close to animals or alternatively treat the whole thing as such a lurid fairytale that it's all kind of batshit (ha) insane, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Ken-Russell-on-slightly-less-bad-acid take on Dracula.

Daybreakers starts off as an interesting riff on the vampire - they’re not just civilized, but it is vampire civilization that is itself problematic - but despite its best efforts, it never really escapes the narrative convention it so desperately needs to shed.

The movie is more or less the story of a hematologist named Edward Dalton. Edward lives a pretty normal life - he goes to the office to work on a big project for a major pharmaceutical company, drinks his coffee, comes home. Only, Edward - like everyone else in the city - goes to work at night, sleeps during the day in a highly secured apartment without windows, and when he stirs his coffee, rich swirls of dark red break the surface.

Edward, like everyone else in the city, is a vampire.

Daybreakers posits a world where the bad guys won, and what happened was life went on more or less as normal, for good and ill. People still go to the office, buy their coffee, do their jobs, live their lives. Some of the details are a little different - the city comes alive at night, not during the day, people put blood in their coffee instead of milk, there are skyways and tunnels connecting all the buildings so people can move around during the day, and oh yeah - humans are farmed like cattle for their blood, and what’s worse, the supply is dwindling. They’re running out of people, and like all cattle do, the ones they have are dying off. Demand outstrips supply. There are still pockets of humans living outside of the cities, and the military’s primary job seems to be hunting these people and corralling them for a lifetime of slow slaughter, death by drops.

But what impact does this have on immortal creatures? Well, blood starvation means degeneration and mutation into a feral bat-thing. Desperate, starving vampires sometimes feed from themselves, a process which poisons them and hastens their transformation. So even the monsters have their own monsters. And this is the problem occupying polite vampire society as the movie opens. Edward is working on an artificial blood substitute that will keep vampires “alive,” because there’s not enough blood to last more than a month at the rate they’re going and the alternative means a city full of things even less human and more predatory than they themselves are. The wealthy and powerful are getting nervous. Edward wants the blood substitute to succeed because he doesn’t want to see society collapse and because he himself makes a point of not drinking human blood. He didn’t choose to be turned and hates it. Edward’s boss wants to see the blood substitute succeed because it diversifies their markets - market the substitute for the masses and still hunt and collect humans for the vampires willing to pay a premium for the real stuff. Even when so much else is different, some of the monsters never change. And then Edward gets into a car accident that changes his unlife and completely flips the game on its head, with a bunch of people in hot pursuit as the world teeters around them.

The movie does really well in the details, taking the time to outline a lot of the little ways that life has changed but still goes on, balancing the bizarre inversions of a world of nocturnal blood-drinkers with the mundanity of a life we all understand, and manages to do a decent job of making even the silliest vampire tropes work in the setting. No, they can’t see their reflections in mirrors, so they have camera monitors instead of mirrors for grooming. Cars are equipped with day and night driving modes. The feral “subsiders” (an interesting worst since “subside” means to “barely exist”) are treated like an especially vicious form of vermin. So the first half is a relatively thoughtful, understated look at the implications of these different types of monstrosity - there's class, the squandering of resources (no blood for oil) - they've pretty much reached Peak Blood and society is breaking down as a result. But the second half - although still having its moments - plays much more like the generic action thriller the first half would seem to subvert. The requisite evil CEO starts monologuing, ranting on and on about how he likes blood that tastes like fear, how he thinks Edward has “always been weak”, and it’s at odds with how the character starts off the film, as a venal CEO with understandable reasons for becoming a vampire. He’s first, but at the halfway point collapses into cliché. Other characters switch allegiances on a plot-determined dime for no reason other than “I’m sorry, but it has to be this way” and it’s sort of bullshit when all of the interesting ideas raised in the beginning get tossed aside for stock action-movie contrivances. It’s like halfway through someone came along and said “wait, you’re making a vampire movie? This isn’t like Underworld at all! Put some more shooty bits in and have some romance in there!” And down it all came.

I might be exaggerating a little bit - it's not as bad as it could be (still looking at you, Underworld), and slick art direction pits that basic style against a world with much more soul, as briefly sketched as it is, but the places where it fails to live up to its promise really rankle in relation to the rest of the film. To make matters worse, the whole thing concludes on sort of an open-ended note, but without any meaningful ambiguity. It feels more like "yes, and…?", like it could or should have gone in a particular direction, and it doesn't NOT go in that direction, it just doesn't go in any direction at all, leaving us hanging in sort of a dumb way. Once it’s largely torn up the beginning’s promise, it ends with some more empty clichés and an honest-to-goodness ride into the sunset as if it somehow makes a Deep Comment when the simplicity of its opening, the fanged bloodsucker stirring his coffee, says so much more.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)


  1. Saw this in theaters, and liked it more than you did (probably because I like the Underworld movies too), but yeah, it does kinda let itself off easy by the end.

    I'm always interested in stories told from the POV of the villains (sorta); I've often considered writing a character who climbs the ladder within an obviously evil organization but never has a change of heart or starts subverting from within or anything - he just does his job, gets promoted and promoted and promoted, and one day, bam! He's the Pope (or whatever). And he got there just by being good at his job, and supporting the goals of the organization because nobody thinks they're the villain/a fish doesn't know it's in water/etc., etc.

    1. I think The Player - although not horror - accomplishes that quite nicely, from sort of a "bad guy gets away with it" standpoint. I've always thought it'd be cool to set the story of Sweeney Todd in a modern-day corporation, sort of In The Company of Men with more blood.