Thursday, December 5, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
If I know vampire fans, and I do, word of mouth on the new Ethan Hawke movie Daybreakers will be huge, and out of the shadows they will come, the disaffected and disillusioned, the lovers of the genre bored by the camp of True Blood and appalled by the treacle of Twilight, the dedicated but indefatigable legion whose last real feeding came as a cinematic gift basket from Sweden.
Savvy readers will know I’m talking about Let the Right One In, and while Daybreakers isn’t as good as that crowning masterpiece of the gothic syle, it’s one of the best movies in a bumper crop, a gorgeously conceived, poetically executed action film that mixes old-style vampire iconography—bats, sunlight, moons, stakes, fangs—with a coolly detailed and logically worked out sense of dystopia.
Movies about our horrific future generally take two forms. In the first, the world changes, and human beings adapt to a hostile new environment. In the second, human beings change, and the two versions of the species must fight for domination. The first category tends to include more visionary works like Blade Runner, 2001 and The Road. The second more often goes for the gut, whether in the zombie apocalypse of 28 Days Later, the quasi-vampiric mayhem of I Am Legend or the multiple versions of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.
Daybreakers finds its place in the second category, but it’s haunted by shades of the first. Peter and Michael Spierig, who previously directed one of the more original zombie flicks of recent years, Undead, have created something like an optical epic in which two terrains compete against each other. Night fights day.
By night, characters wander or drive amid a geometry of steel and concrete , menaced by shadows that can turn instantly into violence. Everything, every object and body, seems lit by a blue fire shining off the surface of an enormous corpse. That’s the effect, and it makes me cold just to think about it. By day, the world becomes rural and empty, populated by the occasional bat or the last living human being. We get shots of single dark-shaded trees at the crest of sun-scorched hills. In a sense, the universe of Daybreakers is one in which the field of combat occurs on the spectrum of light.
In the movie, the human race has succumbed to a virus. Those who get sick become undead, and in many cases, they have turned their loved ones against their wills, a betrayal that falls somewhere between rape and murder. Edward, played by Ethan Hawke, who has slowly but surely become an enduring star of B-movies, a less beefy, equally sleepy Robert Mitchum, is a blood scientist who works for a corporation that harvests humans for their blood. Trouble is, that source is running out. Blood turns out to be a sort of fossil fuel, non-renewable and worth killing for.
The head of the corporation, Charles Bromley, portrayed with the usual menace by Sam Neill, tasks Edward with finding a blood substitute, but the early experiments have gone horribly wrong. Everyone has their own reasons for wanting blood. For all concerned it’s a matter of survival; those who are starved turn into vile and dangerous half-bat homeless folks called subsiders.
Beyond survival things get complicated. Neill’s character relishes his life in death. He was saved from cancer by the condition. His daughter, however, is repulsed and has gone into hiding. Edward’s brother Frankie, played by Michael Dorman, has discovered his inner predator and hunts the last humans for sport and past-time. Edward, turned by Franky at the beginning of the epidemic, is disgusted with himself and refuses to drink human blood.
Enter the supply side. Willem Dafoe has a great time playing Lionel ‘Elvis’ Cormac, one of the ‘people with the crossbows’, as he put it. Dafoe has been in vampire country before, playing Max Shrek, the mysterious actor who starred as the title character in Murnau’s groundbreaking Nosferatu in Shadow Of The Vampire. Here he has a pulse, and his character holds the key to an ingenious plot resolution.
Over the course of two hours these various plot threads wind together in ways that are not always typical of a genre that has been content to play dumb, and it’s bracing to see the Spierig Brothers demonstrate so much care and commitment to a theoretically exhausted genre.
As it turns out, the children of the night are a renewable resource, shockingly so. If only you could put vampires in the ground for fifty million years, our energy problems might be solved. In the meantime, it’s probably time to stop thinking about the subject matter as a form of horror. Vampires have become as ubiquitous and varied as cowboys used to be. Whether on the big screen or television, in books or comics, they serve as many purposes as we can think up for them.
With Daybreakers, the Spierigs remind us that the heirs of Count Dracula aren’t mere relics of the past. They haunt our future, too.
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