Get ready for a killer January. In what has historically been reserved and used as a cinematic dump month for pre-packaged failures needing an excuse to bomb (you know, other than the fact that they're terrible) comes a series of delightful treats. Studios, seeing the success of solid genre films in the month and a half-long wasteland between the holidays and Valentine's Day, have loaded up this month's schedule with something few have ever offered in January: films they actually have faith in. First up is the dark science fiction horror film Daybreakers.
It's written and directed by twin brothers Michael and Peter Spierig (aka the Spierig Brothers), the guys who several years ago took half a million dollars and a couple of computers and made the fun, low-budget zombie thriller Undead. While Lionsgate purchased Undead and let it sit on the shelf for nearly two years, it was a fateful DGA screening that convinced the studios to greenlight the zombie films we now credit with starting the zombie craze of the 00s. Not quite as funny as Shaun of the Dead nor as scary as Dawn of the Dead, audiences generally scoffed at what they saw as an imitator rather than the precursor that reignited the craze altogether (Undead was completed and screened over a year before Shaun saw release and a year and a half before Dawn). Undeterred, the Spierigs began work on their next film, Daybreakers.
Daybreakers is the story of a world overrun by vampires. They spread like a virus, changing humanity into bloodthirsty, vicious monsters that changed some and drank the rest. But as everything settled down and being a vampire became the norm, humanity found a way to make their new existence work for them. That is, until they ran into a problem: they were running out of food. Unfortunately for the vampires, starvation doesn't lead to death -- it leads to further dehumanization, turning men into raving, violent bat monsters that will kill anyone and anything for a single drop of blood. And with widespread blood shortages looming on the horizon, the vampires thirst far outpacing the human ability to breed -- corporations have turned to trying to make a blood substitute.
Ethan Hawke plays the dedicated lab rat trying to find a way to save vampirism from itself, but just when he thinks he is close he inadvertently discovers what might be a cure. Trouble is, many people have become accustomed to the immortality that being a vampire grants and don't like the idea of going back to being human. So Hawke must forge an uneasy alliance with an underground group of humans who may or may not be able to help. Heavily inspired by the work of John Carpenter, the Spierigs set out to make more than just a film, they wanted to make a sci-fi horror world that felt much larger than their low budget allowed. They were very successful.
Daybreakers is the pinnacle of fun, modern sci-fi horror actioners. Supported by a killer cast including Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe (in his seventh movie of the last year), the film creates a lush, dark universe in which the vampires won, humans lost, and now the world just might come to an end in a bloody orgy of self-destruction, quite literally tearing itself apart. Beautifully shot and masterfully crafted, it hits all the right notes, delivering what can best be described as a fun experience that doesn't for a second cheat your brain out of the ride. This isn't a "shut your brain off" action film. On the contrary, it is a great piece of speculative fiction with a lot to say about human nature and our disregard for the limits of our resources. All while rocking your face off with taut pacing, incredible action, and dark pathos.
Once again the Spierigs took a limited budget and crafted many of the visual shots themselves at home on their computers, though you would never know it from the quality you see on screen. These brothers are masters of low-budget genre direction and digital SFX. In the true spirit of indie genre filmmaking, they let their story and actors carry along the plot, but supplement it with just the right amount of visual odyssey to transport you to a world you've never before quite imagined. There is nothing to complain about here. Nothing. Solid all the way through, Daybreakers delivers again and again on the scares, thrills, and chills.
This is how you open up a new year, with one of my favorite films from the festival circuit last year -- and actually one of my very favorite films of the year, period -- and I eagerly await my chance to see it again on the big screen this weekend.