In the unnamed metropolis of Daybreakers, downtown bustles at midnight but lies quiet at noon. Sunlight is a little harsh on its denizens, who seem kind of on edge anyway, and not just because of their yellow eyes and pointy teeth. Ten years into an outbreak of vampirism, society has become a dark mirror of what it was before, with one looming problem: The blood farms have started to run dry. The coffee stands have signs boasting “Still Serving 20% Blood.” But it looks like the signs will soon have to come down. What’s a hungry vampire supposed to do?
Even more confounding, what’s a vampire with a conscience supposed to do? Ethan Hawke plays one such tortured creature, a hematologist turned bloodsucker against his will, now working to create a blood substitute for a many-tentacled corporation led by Sam Neill, an executive whose concern for the future never stretches past the edges of his profit margins. The work, to put it mildly, isn’t going well, and the consequences of failure surround the city in the form of “subsiders,” the feral, violent creatures into which vampires evolve without blood. (Think Max Schreck in Nosferatu, only less dapper.) After one particularly trying day, Hawke runs into the human resistance, an encounter that makes his loyalties even less sure.
Written and directed with considerable visual flair by Australian siblings Peter and Michael Spierig (Undead), Daybreakers bursts with clever ideas and resonant concepts, from the tiny video camera in Hawke’s car that allows him to see himself without a mirror to the eerie parallels between their world of diminishing resources and ours, which comes complete with a neglected underclass of our own. It begins well, too, balancing the black comedy of the vampire world with some unsettling, well-staged thrills. But after a while, Daybreakers settles into the lulling rhythms of too many horror movies, as the characters ponder what to do in darkened rooms instead of doing much of anything. As the action diminishes, the plot digs into a rut, hobbling toward a climactic showdown that doesn’t feel all that climactic. The Spierigs get a lot of points for inventiveness, but their cleverly constructed, uncomfortably familiar world makes a deeper impression than much of what happens within it.