Vampire genre gets infusion of new blood
Throw a bulb of garlic right now and you’ll hit a vampire. But “Daybreakers,’’ a long-gestating action-thriller that opens today, seems to have made room to accommodate both vampire fatigue and those who can’t seem to get enough. Just when you think popular culture has exhausted all the metaphorical and allegorical possibilities, the film unifies all the usual tropes (bloodlust, heliophobia, fangs) into a complete science fiction whole.
“Daybreakers,’’ which is written and directed by the twin brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, has unexpected flashes of brilliance. It’s been shot and staged with unusual patience. All the scenes hang together.
The film is set in a kind of corporate totalitarian 2019. Fewer than 5 percent of humans remain after a plague has turned everyone else into a vampire species of all races, classes, and occupations. They look like us, only clammier and even more prone to smoke. The remaining humans have refused to assimilate and, alas, have been turned into highly coveted blood machines. Blood is dripped into coffee, sipped like wine, and has the power to drive the average thirsty vampire batty.
The story revolves around Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), a scientist vampire whose company has been looking for a blood substitute. For moral reasons, Edward resists his natural taste for blood, and finds an outlet for his conflictedness when he encounters an armed human resistance, led by Willem Dafoe. Edward can’t quite conquer the conundrum of fake blood but does happen upon a far more exciting biological discovery. It’s an inventive twist (which I won’t spoil) that gives the humans a witty scientific weapon and the movie a series of mounting kicks.
The Spierigs’ previous film was a gnarly 2003 zombie action comedy called “Undead.’’ They appear to have spent the intervening years thoroughly thinking out this movie’s logistics. Technology has provided coping strategies for sunlight. The city, for instance, has a vast underground wing, like, say, Montreal does for the winter. On a subway banner, Uncle Sam recruits for a vampire army. A monster mutation of blood-starved vampires - called subsiders - looks like a cross between crackheads and Nosferatu. There’s a very good sequence in which a rabid subsider breaks into Edward’s house, where he and his trigger-happy soldier brother, Frank (Michael Dorman), attempt to kill it.
The action in that encounter is beautifully orchestrated. The subsider flaps his giant wings and hisses as it hangs from the ceiling and knocks the brothers around. The sequence isn’t over-edited or gunked up with wild camerawork. It unfolds not only in real time but in real space. The filmmakers want you to savor the images they’ve composed. That commitment to framing and choreography is a pleasure to watch.
The Wachowski brothers brought a similar rousing thoroughness to the first “Matrix’’ movie and much of the second. Theirs was a sharper, more complex universe (paid for, I imagine, by a larger budget). But the Spierigs deliver a lot less philosophical hokum and a lot more humor - and scenes set in the open air. They, too, appear to be going for a saga. Although: Boys, stopping right here would be no crime. Most of the loose ends - including a subplot involving Frank, Edward’s greedy vampire boss (Sam Neill), and the boss’s young human daughter (Isabel Lucas) - are either tied up or gnawed off.
On the other hand, a sequel would give everyone a chance to improve their American accents, which are all terrible. The Spierigs are German-born Australians, and they’ve filled the cast with their compatriots, including Claudia Karvan, who’s Dafoe’s co-leader and the Carrie-Anne Moss of this operation. Let’s just say that the filmmakers’ ear is not as impeccable as their eye.
But what an eye! In the latter going, there’s a shot of dozens of soldiers engaged in a cannibalistic, borderline-homoerotic feeding frenzy. It’s an image that comes as close to art as a work of science fiction has produced in ages. If a second installment has more of that, then fine: Hello, franchise.