There is a war that has been waged for centuries longer than that between vampires and humans; I refer to Style vs. Substance. Truly great art neutralizes both fields, not letting one override the other. But great art is rare, more so in genre fiction. Daybreakers is a twist on vampire films that Michael and Peter Spierig spent years of their life developing, and it's almost always evident. Every sequence and shot have been fully thought out, every character's costume and make-up were painstakingly crafted and perfected, and the story is genuinely clever. Unfortunately, all the beauty onscreen can't cover up the wrinkles in dialogue and character development. Only a doctor could do something like that. Perhaps Dr. Acula.
Daybreakers is set in a future where ordinary vampires have completely obliterated the human population, and surviving homo sapiens are forced to live and travel secretly. Pharmaceutical company Bromley Marks, run by greed-hound Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), has been "farming" humans for blood in gigantic Matrix-lite facilities, but their dwindling numbers mean the blood supply can't possibly meet the population's demand. Without a steady diet of blood, many vampires have begun devolving into feral creatures that resemble homeless people. Thus, the streets have come under heavily increased military presence, one that kidnaps humans while keeping the peace for the walking dead. Extreme care was taken by the Spierig brothers to make sure as much logic as possible is infused into the story by filling it with interesting details that many horrors take for granted.
Hematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) works with fellow doctor Chris Caruso (Vice Colosimo) to create a blood substitute that won't destroy its host upon entry, but their attempts so far have failed. The virtuous Edward refuses to drink human blood, which is a source of much contention between him and his brother Frankie (Michael Dorman), a human-hunting military man. This isn't the only bad blood between the brothers, but it splits them nonetheless.
A circumstantial car accident introduces Edward to Audrey (Claudia Karvan), an on-the-run human who finds survivors to bring back to a slapdash commune set up in an old vineyard. As it turns out, a doctor is just what Audrey and her fellow humans need. We meet Elvis (Willem Dafoe), a reformed vampire whose reverted existence is crucial to Edward's plight. The bad guys find out about this meeting, and the movie begins pulling from its bag of action-movie tricks. It's inevitable that a population-maddening lack of blood will lead to large-scale fisticuffs, but I almost wish it didn't. Once the pace quickens, the attention to detail flounders, and the focused morality tale becomes popcorn fodder. There are still moments of clarity in the second half of the film, but they're peppered between scenes of vampire explosions and car chases, albeit unique ones. Thank God Christopher Gordon's score is an orchestral thing of beauty, and we're not forced to listen to industrial metal during the bloodshed.
We're lucky that Daybreakers, even as it gets flashy and loud, never puts the story in the backseat. The dialogue-light opening scenes cement this doomed world in reality, and the constant, seemingly insignificant details are the more intriguing aspects of the theme at large. Wildfires in California? They're caused by vampiric animals too stupid to take shelter from the sun. How do vampires drive during the day? In cars with blacked out windows and complex camera systems that make travel easier. Notice when Edward checks himself out in the sun visor's mirror. It's actually a small camera, since vampires have no reflection. There are other interesting details that really drive home metaphorical comparisons to things like cancer and health care. Sometimes, it's a little on the nose, but at least they're trying, Twilight.
So, with all this great story, not to mention the gorgeous palate of colors the film is shot in, what could possibly be holding me back from praising this movie to everyone? The characters, mostly. There's an ever-present lack of depth, and it occasionally takes its toll. Charles Bromley, despite Neill's campily vacant portrayal, doesn't feel like much more than the evil villain, even given a side plot involving his human daughter Alison (Isabel Lucas). Similarly, Audrey is more of a cog than a real person. She connects the plot points and becomes the hero's female counterpart, but without an interesting history. (Thankfully, all attempts at romance are avoided.) Due to the character's crucial purpose, I found Elvis to be more intriguing than most, but Willem Dafoe plays him like a Dukes of Hazzard regular. His dialogue is awfully trite, and the accent delivering these hammy thoughts is completely misused.
As it should be, the most complete character is Edward, and the most complete performance is the one given by Ethan Hawke. The guy always looks put-upon even when he's smiling, so playing a self-loathing vampire does him no disservice. His frustrated unhappiness is forever understated, enough so that even his most banal dialogue falls under the radar. One could argue that he also lacked a proper backstory, but I think his attitude alone proves his past is uninteresting. We're allowed to visit Edward at the exact moment his life becomes its most purposeful. And all the while (because this is neo-noir), he's smoking like a chimney...in public!! Ah, the wonderful world of the future, where anything can occur, like vampire movies that don't pander to teenagers. Lost Boys be damned.
If you got to the end of Daybreakers and thought, "I would love to know close to everything humanly possible about this film," then you needn't look any further. Both the Blu-ray and DVD editions contain the extensive making-of featurette and commentary. The Blu-ray has a few more features, as well as the magnificent resolution and sound that makes every scene pop. But honestly, Daybreakers would probably look good on a Commodore 64 monitor.
The feature-length behind-the-scenes featurette is sectioned and sub-sectioned into over a dozen bite-sized capsules that focus and inform on particular aspects of the filmmaking process. No stone is left unturned. Each segment lasts between five and 10 minutes, and covers everything from concept to film festival, from colored contacts to digital eye glow, from vampire drawing to vampire in costume. The most impressive thing, by far, is that the Spierig brothers made a roughly hewn, but still amazingly accurate, animatic for most of the major sequences in the movie, and even some dialogue scenes. Some novels aren't that dedicated. It's a must-see, even if you only pick and choose what interests you.
The commentary by the co-directing brothers and creature designer Steve Boyle, though dry and detail-heavy, is also worth the time. Somehow, facts are given that haven't already been covered, such as every comparison possible to the making of their first movie, Undead. And when does a creature designer ever get to make it onto a commentary? I feel I could write a book report on this movie.
A bonus for the Blu-ray version is the picture-in-picture animatic/storyboard feature that plays along with the movie. And seriously, less than a fourth of it seemed to be the drawn storyboard. Everything else was digitally animated, and just as impressive as I'm making it out to be.
The last jewel of this disc is The Big Picture, a short film directed by the Spierig brothers in 2000. I can't even put a genre to it, because it would be subject to the viewer's perception. It's dark, it's hilarious, it's heartbreaking, it's unsettling. It does what my favorite short stories do. Search for it online somewhere, even if this disc never touches your hands. Finally, there's a decent poster gallery, a trailer, and lots of nifty BD-Live and BD-Touch extras that don't add anything to the film itself.