‘Daybreakers’: somewhat broken

I saw Daybreakers yesterday. Written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, the Australian film-making duo who brought us the entertaining zombie/alien film Undead a few years ago, Daybreakers was a movie I have been quite looking forward to seeing. The Spierig Brothers have been given a decent budget and some actual production values and are making what looks to be a slick, intelligent, futuristic vampire film. The premise is excellent: as a result of viral infection, the vast majority of the world’s population have become vampires and are now running out of their preferred food source — human blood. It all sounds very promising indeed, and the approving murmurs on the interwebs seem to back this up. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver.

DaybreakersI can be a harsh critic, I know that. The older I get, the less patience I seem to have for things that waste my time.  (Why am I on Facebook? Ah, the paradox!) I’ll put books aside unfinished if they don’t grab my attention after a few chapters, I’ll stop watching tv shows if they get boring or stupid. I have not yet started to walk out on movies, probably because they are only a couple of hours long and I’m usually at the half way point before I start to get really irritated anyway. Funnily enough, the more potential a movie has, the more disappointed and annoyed I am when it doesn’t pan out. Daybreakers is one of those movies. It could have been a really excellent film, but the scripting is lazy and full of contradictions, inconsistencies and logic holes. The direction is hackneyed at times, with some very cheap fright moments — shrieking bats flying at the camera, anyone? It’s a B movie, at best. And that’s a shame.

The rest of this post will contain some major spoilers, so if you’re intending to see Daybreakers, perhaps you should come back and read it later.

The primary issue I had with the movie was the supposed science behind the vampirism. Now I dig science-based monsters. I love it when a writer or film-maker tries to work out the real-world basis and mechanics of mythical creatures, and gets it right. (The UK television show, Being Human, does this exceptionally well with werewolves and, only a touch less successfully, with vampires.) The thing is, once you start getting your science on, you need to follow it all the way down the line. You can’t cherry-pick from the established mythos based on what will look pretty or cool on the big screen. It has to work with the science you’ve set up; that’s Basic World-building 101.

One of the key plot-points in Daybreakers is that the vampires need human blood to survive. We are told this several times throughout the film, and shown the dramatic physical and mental deterioration a vampire suffers when deprived of human blood for just 30 days. Yet the film’s vampire hero, Edward (played by Ethan Hawke), has taken a moral stance and refuses to drink any human blood. Pig seems to do just fine for him and — wait, hang on a second. Vampires can survive on animal blood? Really? So what’s the fricken problem? Sure human blood is primo and would be very expensive when available, but if animal blood will suffice then where are all the pig blood farms? And cow blood farms and horse blood farms and … you get the picture. There would be no food shortage issue — the issue that drives the film — if vampires can live off the blood of any mammal. It’s lazy scripting, presumably done to make Edward more heroic to a human audience and more of an outsider to his own kind, but it makes no sense.

There are several other science-logic miss-steps, albeit not as integral to the plot. Why are vampires not reflected in mirrors but picked up on a digital video camera? Why the non-reflective bit at all, when it comes right down to it? What kind of fricken virus does that? (Oh right, the sneaky It-Looks-So-Cool-On-Screen virus.) Why do vampires explode like dynamite when their heart is pierced by a length of wood? How does that bit of physiology actually work? The immolation by sunlight I can live with, but not the fact that some vampires display immediate injuries which take some time to heal — Frankie shows the shadow of a burn on his cheek hours after a brief brush with the sun; Cormac has hideous burns after flying several feet through daylight — while Edward is directly and repeatedly exposed to sunlight for several seconds, bursting dramatically into flames each time, and suffers not even a singed eyebrow. (Let’s not mention the heart monitors he’s hooked up to, which are obviously made from platinum-grade asbestos.)

I will give the Spierig Brothers full points, though, for not mentioning crosses, churches or holy water. Not once, not even with the brush of obligatory post-modern irony. Good call, boys.

Dafoe, Karvan and Hawke
"Look, just give us a script that makes sense and no one has to get shot."

There are numerous other plot problems, unrelated to world-building. A bunch of refugee humans have been found and are being brought back to the resistance headquarters where they’ll be safe from the vampires. Naturally, they travel at night, in a suspicious-looking convoy, with all their windows down to reveal just who is riding in the vans. You know, to keep safe from the vampires. The humans also stay in contact with each other via a radio/telco device that allows almost immediate tracking of the frequency/call back to HQ. Naturally, they keeping using the device for precious seconds after they’re informed that the convoy has been attacked. You know, to keep safe from the vampires. And poor Claudia Karvan’s character, Audrey, somehow manages to stand lookout in a huge field with practically a 360 degree view (specifically chosen as a safe meeting point because of this) and still not see the vampire soldier sneaking up behind her. I think she was distracted by a bat (seriously). That’ll teach the menfolk to trust a lady with such an important job.

Which is my other major beef with Daybreakers. There are female faces on screen (vampire extras on the street, human extras in the resistance) but very little in the story itself.  Women play only two significant roles: Audrey, who keeps getting captured and needing to be rescued; and Alison, the still-human daughter of the head vampire honcho, Charles Bromley. Both women serve more as plot devices than characters. Its the men who drive the narrative and get all the meaty roles (and choicest dialogue). Audrey is there to be Cormac’s number two and the obligatory girl among boys. And to get rescued. (To give the Spieirg Brothers their due, she is not portrayed as the stereotypical kickass, leather-clad glamour grrl, but then it’s not that kind of film.)  Alison likewise is not a character in her own right. Appearing in the second half of the film, she serves merely to fill out her father’s emotional palette and provide fodder for a few nasty scenes that show vampires at their worst. It’s somewhat telling that Bromley has a daughter and not a son. I can’t help but think that Daybreakers would have been a much more interesting film if Alison had been a male character, if some of the soldiers in the vampire army were women, if Audrey was actually the leader of the resistance rather than second in command. None of that would have helped with the plot-holes, but it might have given a more textured rendering of the story.

I’ve now spent more time writing about Daybreakers than I did watching it, which seems odd. But thinking about why this film failed and analysing its faults actually makes me feel like I’ve gotten back some of that wasted time in the cinema. Even bad story-telling can be instructive. That’s what I keep telling myself.