Film Length: 98 min.
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1; French DD 5.1
Subtitles: English; English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50 GB + 1 DVD (digital copy)
Theatrical Release Date: Jan. 8, 2010
Blu-ray Release Date: May 11, 2010
The vampire theme has been so thoroughly strip-mined in recent years that it’s hard to imagine anyone doing something new, but Daybreakers tries and succeeds to a remarkable degree. The Spierig Brothers, an Australian writer-director team, began their feature career with a zombie film, Undead, and the influence of George A. Romero is unmistakable. Like Romero, the Spierigs blend genre films with social commentary. Daybreakers doesn’t fully realize the promise of its remarkable first half, but it has a consistent vision. It’s an auspicious beginning to what will hopefully be a long career.
Warning: Like many Lionsgate Blu-rays, this one checks the internet for “updates” when the player first reads it, but this is the rare disc for which Lionsgate has actually provided one – and it’s buggy. Do not let the update load. Doing so may cause any or all of the following: (1) failure of the disc to complete the loading cycle; (2) the Blu-ray equivalent of the Windows “black screen of death” at an unpredictable moment; and/or (3) interrupted playback for no apparent reason. I experienced all of these with Daybreakers until I disconnected my player from the internet.
Even without the update, expect a longer than usual load time, due the nature of the special features.
In the year 2019, a plague started by a bat bite has turned most of the human race into vampires. With “the dark gift” no longer a rarity, society has reorganized around the needs and habits of nocturnal existence and avoiding the sun. The issue that supersedes all others is a shortage of nourishment, as the planet’s human population is all but extinct. Vampires deprived of blood quickly degenerate into senseless, violent creatures known as “subsiders”. These primitive beasts attack anything they see and are a danger to humans and vampires alike.
Most of the remaining blood supply is controlled by the Bromley Marks Corporation. Its head, Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), is a suave captain of industry determined to create and sell a stable blood substitute – at a handsome profit, of course. His chief hematologist, Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), has his doubts, but then Edward has never reconciled himself to being a vampire, whereas Bromley revels in it. Bromley shares this trait with Edward’s younger brother, Frankie (Michael Dorman), a soldier in the vampire militia, which is tasked with hunting down any remaining humans who can be “farmed” for blood supplies.
A chance encounter puts Edward in contact with Audrey (Claudia Karvan), a leader of a human resistance group. Audrey, in turn, introduces Edward to Lionel “Elvis” Cormac (Willem Dafoe), the only being on earth ever to have reverted from vampire back to human. It becomes Edward’s responsibility, as a scientist, to analyze how this transformation occurred and whether it can be replicated. If vampirism can be cured, then blood shortages will become moot. Then again, Charles Bromley will lose his captive market for a blood substitute, and guys like Bromley aren’t known to sit back and let that sort of thing happen.
Daybreakers got mixed reviews from critics, and comments online were generally negative. As I watched it a second time, it struck me that it’s one of those films where expectations have a big impact on the viewing experience. Despite the marketing and the apparent subject, the film is about vampires only to the extent that David Cronenberg’s Scanners is about mind control. (The comparison isn’t fanciful. There’s a scene in the film that strongly echoes one of Scanners’ signature moments.) Like Cronenberg, the Spierigs use horror film tropes to reach for something deeper. At its best (and not all of it works), Daybreakers is a dystopian “future vision” in the manner of Blade Runner or THX-1138. The best parts of the film are those that try to imagine what would happen to our social institutions, personal relationships and individual psychology if everyone stopped aging and disease disappeared, but most people were starving because the one necessity of life, blood, had become a vanishing resource.
It’s not a pretty picture. In the film’s opening scene, a little girl commits suicide by sunlight, leaving a note for her parents explaining that she can no longer stand the eternal childhood that extends endlessly before her. Later, Edward sees a group of kids smoking and drinking on the street; they all look exceedingly sad. Most of the population has their blood strictly rationed, while a privileged few – including rich people like Bromley and soldiers like Frankie – get all they want. The well-to-do live outside the city with elaborate security systems to protect themselves from the ever-encroaching subsiders. (“These things are in the suburbs now”, a cop tells Edward after he suffers a home invasion.) In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, the military sweeps the streets rounding up subsiders and, unwilling to spare any of the precious blood supply to treat them, exterminates them en masse. It’s a horrifying scene evoking both the Holocaust and a public execution from the Middle Ages. It’s also the clearest example of what the Spierigs are trying to accomplish. Where the traditional vampire film is about quenching a thirst, Daybreakers is about the social and political power of controlling the blood supply.
Not everything in Daybreakers is as effective, though. The lengthy scenes of Edward’s effort to decipher how Elvis reverted from vampire to human are visually arresting, but they feel like nothing more than essential plot machinery. And the conclusion, while it has an underlying logic, simply doesn’t work, because it plays like a standard zombie film, and it’s as if we’ve sidestepped into another movie. If one is going to subvert genre cliches for the sake of social commentary, one shouldn’t switch genres in the third act.
Daybreakers demonstrates visual flair and a fertile imagination in its evocation of the vampire society, but most of the truly original images are concentrated in the first half hour. A comparison with Blade Runner is instructive. One of the signal achievements of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece is that it never runs out of inspiration. From beginning to end, in every shot, in every frame, it always shows you something new in the dark future it’s imagined for us. Few films are able to sustain that level of creative ingenuity. At some point you feel the exhaustion set in and the well run dry. Still, Daybreakers does better than most, and I look forward to the Spierigs’ next effort.
Daybreakers also benefits from having a much stronger cast than is usually found in a modestly budgeted horror film. Hawke has always been good at playing conflicted characters, and he gives Edward the haunted look of someone who’s heartily fed up with both his unscrupulous employer and life everlasting. Dafoe brings his usual offbeat energy to the role of Elvis, who, before he became a wonder of science, ran a garage that specialized in customizing automobiles to make them safe for vampires to drive in daylight. As Bromley, Sam Neill follows the fine examples set by Alan Rickman and Anthony Hopkins, using charm and a soft voice to make the villain of the story all the more menacing.
Lionsgate has provided an excellent transfer of the film’s heavily processed and stylized photography. The vampire worlds are cool and blue, with most other colors bleached out (red being the obvious exception). It’s a night world with a limited palette. The human world, both in daytime and when Edward is among human refugees at night, is dominated by earth tones. The Blu-ray renders these shifts accurately and with appropriate definition. Detail is also very good, allowing you to appreciate the elaborate make-up effects and set design. Black levels are solid, which is essential, given the many night scenes. I did not see any artifacting or evidence of excess noise reduction.
This is a powerful and active mix full of both immersive and atmospheric effects (e.g., rain), as well as specific sounds that come at you from a variety of directions (e.g., bats, tranquilizer darts). Bass extension is deep and is sometimes used for an unsettling undercurrent. The musical score by Christopher Gordon seems to weave in and out of the sound effects (or maybe it’s just that the sound effects are mixed very loud), but the result is to make it almost a part of the sonic landscape.
Commentary with The Spierig Brothers and Creature Designer Steve Boyle. The Spierigs provide a lively track, with frequent assists from Boyle (a veteran of WETA Digital). They identify locations, talk about shortcuts they used to save money, identify the various elements of a sequence (makeup, mechanical, digital), and comment on the film’s themes. They also express their appreciation for working with Lionsgate, which never pressed them to soften the film in any way for a PG-13 rating.
BonusView™ Storyboards/Animatics. When activated, this option plays the film with a PIP display of the extensive storyboards and animatics created by the Spierigs during script development and pre-production.
The Making of Daybreakers (HD) (2:01:38). Longer than the main feature, this documentary offers in-depth coverage of the film’s creation. It is divided into “Early Development”, “Pre-Production”, “Production”, “Post-Production” and “Credits” (the last containing some amusing outtakes). Extensive interviews with all the principals are included, along with footage from the set. The documentary concludes with the film’s premiere in September 2009 at the Toronto Film Festival.
The Big Picture – Spierig Bros. Short Film (HD; 1:78:1) (13:51). This short begins with a woman receiving a flower from a man who’s obviously smitten, but she tells him she’s too tired to go out that evening – maybe some other time. Then she turns on the TV, and the Spierigs proceed to work an interesting variation on that old paranoia that maybe it’s your TV that’s watching you.
Poster Art Gallery. A small gallery of posters for Daybreakers.
BD Touch™ and Metamenu™. These features are meant to work with an iPhone or iPad, neither of which I possess.
Trailers. The film’s trailer is included in HD as a separate extra. At startup, the disc plays trailers for From Pariswith Love, Gamer, Lionsgate on Blu-ray and the Epix network. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button and are also separately available from the features menu.
LG Live. This is Lionsgate’s version of BD-Live. Since I had to disconnect my player from the internet to play the disc, I did not attempt to explore it.
In their commentary, the Spierigs acknowledge the tricky balancing act of weaving social commentary into a genre picture. Make it too obvious, and the film is no longer fun. But there’s a flipside to that principle: Lose the larger vision, and the film becomes just another genre exercise. Here again, Blade Runner is instructive. Its climactic confrontation between Deckard and Batty is essentially a chase scene, but it’s also a metaphysical dialogue about the value of life. It’s that dialogue that give the film’s final shot (in Ridley Scott’s preferred cut) such tragic weight as the elevator door slams shut.
Daybreakers contains the germ of a similar concluding theme in Edward’s belated discovery that the blood of a vampire who’s been restored to humanity has unexpected new properties. But because they ran out of either money or ideas, the Spierigs don’t do anything with that notion other than stage a by-the-numbers splatter-fest. They do it with skill, but we’ve seen it before. Figuring out a meaningful resolution is often the difference between an interesting film and a truly good one.
Equipment used for this review: Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog) Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI) Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears Boston Accoustics VR-MC center SVS SB12-Plus sub
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