Starring: Ethan Hawke, Isabel Lucas, Willem Dafoe, and Sam Neill
Directors/Writers: The Spieberg Brothers
Released: Lionsgate (2010)
More often than not, when Ethan Hawke stars in a film, I enjoy both the film and his performance. Yet, for some reason I find he has the air of a smarmy prick. Maybe that's just part of the characters he's played over the years. I will say, however, that by the time this movie ended, I quite liked his character--and by proxy, him as well.
In the year 2019, humanity is nearly a decade into its existence after much of it is turned into vampires. It's a bit vague as to how it happened--something like a virus caused the initial outbreak--but the end result in a world much like our own, but with vampires running the show and humans are basically hunted down like wild game and farmed for their blood. Now we know how the KFC chickens feel.
Humans are a finite resource, and you might say the world has long passed "peak blood" as only 5% of the human population remains, and synthetic blood substitutes aren't exactly panning out yet. That's where Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) comes in. He's one of the scientists researching a possible blood substitute, and since being turned into a vampire all those years ago, he's been having a bit of a hard go of assimilating into the vampire lifestyle. He has an aversion to drinking human blood, but they've discovered through grizzly observation that blood deprivation is, shall way say, less than pleasant for their species.
Enter Elvis (Willem Dafoe), a strange human who claims he used to be a vampire but was miraculously cured. Aided by a ragtag crew of humans on the run, Elvis enlists Edward to help replicate the circumstances that led to his being cured of vampirism, and hopefully cure the rest of the planet as well before all vampires degrade into a ravenous mutated horde.
As a vampire film, this movie really tries to set itself apart--at least in terms of subject matter. The gothic and graceful vampire is a veneer really, as they behave just like they did when they were human, or rather mimic their former lives while consumed by the constant craving for blood. The scenes involving the little coffee/blood shop down the street from Edward's laboratory worked quite well in making that connection between man's past and the vampire's present.
As far as the casting is concerned, it's just about pitch perfect, though it really feels at times that the main players are there to revamp old roles they've been known for. Ethan Hawke has that twitchy brooding thing that he worked so well in films like Gattica and Training Day, while Sam Neill is his same immortally creepy self as the CEO of the labs and lead villain--think a vampire version of his role in Event Horizon. And Willem Dafoe ... Well, it's Willem Dafoe. Isabel Lucas is the unfamiliar face among the cast as the human Ethan Hawke meets through an abrupt, and albeit artificial, happenstance that leads him on his way to searching for a cure. She does a good job with the role she's given, but most of the time it feels like she's there simply to act as a go-between for Ethan Hawke's character between his ordeals as a vampire and longing to regain his humanity.
There's an interesting subplot involving Sam Neill's character and an estranged daughter who has rejected him in the wake of his turning into a vampire--a turn which cured him of cancer, but ultimately turned him into a monster in his daughter's eyes. It's a flagrant bit of pathos, but without all that emoting and melancholy sprinkled throughout the story, the movie would regrettably fall apart and wind up as just another ruthless vampire B-movie.
The ending, while intense, left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I think that's because it, like District 9, abandoned the more cerebral elements of the story in favor of becoming a kind of run-and-gun climax. All things considered though, Daybreakers is a refreshing and welcome addition to vampire lore. I just hope they don't sully it by coming out with a sequel at some point, because this movie stands on its own and needs no follow-up.