Things would be real different if vampires ruled the world. Coffee would come spiked with hemoglobin, not half-and-half. Tooth-whitener ads would feature fangs. And the most compelling public-service announcement would be an hourly sunrise advisory. Some things would suck in a new way, too. As one weary vampire puts it in [movie id="347209"]"Daybreakers,"[/movie] the inventive new genre flick from Australia, "Life's a bitch, and then you don't die."
The movie presents us with a world in which vampires do rule. Humans have been so successfully blood-farmed by a vampire corporation called Bromley Marks that they're now an endangered species. Only small bands of them remain at large, armed with stake-shooting crossbows and hiding out in the sunny countryside, where they're hard for the undead authorities to catch. With the vampire food supply running low, and consumer unrest on the rise, the corporation's elegantly sinister CEO, Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), is driving his staff scientists to find a blood substitute. His chief researcher, Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), is on the case; but Dalton sympathizes with the humans, and his real goal is to find a cure for vampirism -- which is not what the profit-oriented Bromley has in mind. ("Besides," he asks, sipping from a glass of arterial claret, "what's to cure?")
When Dalton encounters a group of humans led by an ex-vampire called Elvis (Willem Dafoe), he realizes that a cure already exists, and he throws in his lot with the renegades -- among them, inevitably, an attractive guerrilla named Audrey (Claudia Karvan). Dalton's defection doesn't sit well with his brother, Frankie (Michael Dorman), a hardcore vampire supremacist, or, of course, with Bromley, whose annoyance is intensified by the fact that his own daughter (Isabel Lucas) remains among the human insurgents, and refuses to come in out of the sun.
The movie was written and directed by the twin-brother team of Michael and Peter Spierig, whose last film, the 2003 "Undead," was a dismal zombie exercise. Here, with a bigger budget, they acquit themselves with style (the vampire world is cool and sleek and appropriately color-drained) and, by genre standards, restraint. Plenty of blood is sloshed about, especially in a scene involving a horrific "home invasion" by an outlaw vampire with big bony wings and a vintage ratty snarl that harks all the way back to "Nosferatu." But there's more to the picture than simple gore-mongering. The story is cleverly worked-out (even at the end -- always the hard part), and it's filled with quick, witty touches. (When a vampire glances into the rearview mirror of his blacked-out car, all he sees looking back is an empty suit.) The requisite chase-and-battle action is staged with crisp economy, and there are some striking images (especially in the scene in which a group of wretched underclass vampires is marched in chains out into the sun to meet a fiery doom).
The cast also helps a lot -- Hawke, Neill and Dafoe are invaluably overqualified for this sort of picture. And there's even a message, of sorts, about the dire results of depleting a natural resource. "Daybreakers" doesn't transform the vampire format as brilliantly as "Near Dark" did 20 years ago; but in a period of such anemic offerings as the "Twilight" movies, it pumps in some much-needed new blood.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Youth in Revolt," also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we've got on "Daybreakers."
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