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The UnPopular Opinion: Daybreakers

05.09.2012

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THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!

**** SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****

Disclaimer: today’s opinion might not have actually been a truly unpopular one if more people had seen DAYBREAKERS. So consider this as much as Public Service Announcement that you should see this movie as it is an UnPopular Opinion entry.

My foremost fascination is with monsters, and the one for me that throws its shadow over all of the others is the vampire. DRACULA was the first book I ever truly loved, reread repeatedly, and consciously pulled apart in my quest to understand just what I was really reading. With my first reading at the age of twelve I sensed that there were levels of meaning and relevance encoded in that text, and I have spent the years since seeking to further understand how deep the metaphor of “vampire” really goes. And let me tell you my friends, the rabbit hole runs well and truly deep. Or rather, perhaps I should say that the coffin is buried very deep indeed. Now in the intervening years since Bram Stoker first wrote DRACULA, there have been a great many incarnations of both the novel’s namesake and the general breed of monster known as “the vampire.”

Now, to my mind, several subtle-yet-profound shifts have recently occurred in vampire mythology via the tools of cinematic storytelling. One of these was nearly universally hailed as brilliant (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN), while the other passed more or less completely under the radar despite being very much its own brand of brilliant.   Which brings me to today’s movie, the 2009 release DAYBREAKERS.  A severely underlooked genre gem, this movie has something for just about everyone and does every one of those somethings very well indeed.  But before we get to the thematic meat of the movie (and why it's so brillaint to me), let's first have a look at the filmmaking.

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"Is this place safe?"
"Living in a world where vampires are the dominant species is about as safe as bare backing a 5 dollar whore."

Honestly, except for quasi-additions to the vampire mythology like Guillermo del Toro’s CRONOS, not a lot had been done to shake up tradition and preconception in terms of vampires for a fair while before DAYBREAKERS rolled around. And please just assume from now on that LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is always the exception to the rule, as I don’t want to keep spending time to mention it. But yeah – DAYBREAKERS.   DAYBREAKERS changed things up in a huge way, and was a pretty excellent piece of filmmaking to boot. For what was only really their second film, I’d say that The Spierig Brothers acquitted themselves quite well with their writing, direction, and visual effects work. Yes, maybe they rely a bit on tried-and-tired visual techniques such as the repeated use of orange hues against blue hues, and perhaps the vampiric/human worlds on the whole are shot with extremely obvious and basic differences in color scheme and tone, and perhaps they shoot/frame everything a bit too close in a way that actually limits the true scope of the character and story, but at the end of the day the world design itself is so defined and fantastic that I can’t help but forgive them.

And yes, I really do believe the world design to be fantastic, though curiously the fantastic qualities it bears actually arise from how it is merely an extension of our own world. The natural expansion and elaboration on what is already familiar to us as an audience serves as a prime example of science fiction, i.e. the exploration of where, in the face of a certain quest or dilemma, our technology could go. Not science fantasy (a la STAR WARS), but rather science fiction (a la GATTACA). Perhaps a wider knowledge of science would inform me that the technological methods used in DAYBREAKERS are actually not possible, but so far as I know everything works as a natural expansion of this world in which we now live. Which is a necessary decision if an audience is to have any hope of connecting with such a high-concept story, so it helps that the Spierig Brothers manifest their futuristic-yet-familiar design with skill and aplomb.  Everything in the world of DAYBREAKERS is crisp, exact, and exists with distinct reason.  Which, as someone who appreciates Sci-Fi without being hardcore in my fandom the way I am with fantasy/monsters/fairy tales, is something I very much appreciate.

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"I didn't turn you because it was convenient or because of some selfish need for blood. I turned you because you would have died if I didn't."

Speaking of finding extraordinarily effective ways to engage the audience emotionally in the world of DAYBREAKERS, the opening scene is f***ing brilliant and perfect and exactly what it needed to be. A young girl writes a note and then proceeds to walk outside, sit down, and wait for the rising sun to burn her into nothingness. We see what is, ironically, something which acutely humanizes the vampire situation for us. Her sorrow, the phrases shown from her letter (“can’t go on,” etc…), her desperation for peace and release – without speaking a single word we immediately know how damaged and frightened the people of this world have become in the wake of their infection.

This is, in effect, high-concept made low by virtue of how we are instantly affected and able to connect with every member of this society. By showing us from the get-go how these vampires are different in form but not in heart (so to speak), DAYBREAKERS immediately gives us the invitation to understand these vampires on a human level. This is something which is, once again, essential for the success of a high-concept story.  And DAYBREAKERS has it in spades.

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"The majority of the population will be content with a blood substitute, yes. But there will always be those who are willing to pay a little extra for the real thing."

Going along with the whole “humanization” thing, I’d like to talk about the second of the two big bads in this story – the first is the movie’s set-up situation in and of itself (which we'll get to a little later), while the second is one Mr. Sam Neil. Not content to just let their main villain Charles Bromley be a nasty and power hungry man in a suit, the Spierig Brothers chose instead to write in both a very human motivation for him to embrace the vampiric disease (staving off his imminent death by cancer with immortality) and an ultimate goal that embraces the greater good rather than mere power. Yes, of course he is a businessman and says things/makes decisions in order to earn more money, prestige, and power, But he is also actively looking for a way to save the vampiric race for no reason other than it needs saving. Perhaps his methods and goals are made up in part by self-interest, but his main goal is (in theory) one of preservation and rebuilding rather than selfish use and a hunger for power.

It is even understandable as to why he asks someone to turn his own daughter in the end, because he is terrified she’ll be torn apart in the imminent chaos following the lost of the last captured human and the blood they provided. Even if you disagree with what Bromley does, it is at least possible to understand his intentions and reasoning. Having a villain with very relatable and human concerns is something which I am thankful for in any movie, and in high-concept genre pieces especially. He is the best kind of villain, one that is dark and dastardly more by circumstance than nature but with an eventual extra push from that deep unconscious place where the true nature lies that sends them over the edge into real evil. Because after all and to be fair, once his daughter begins to feed on herself, well…the road to hell is paved with good intentions…

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"Feel that? Hadn't been beating for nine years. Seems impossible, don't it?
"It is impossible."
"So is walking around without a pulse."

Once the daughter begins to feed on herself, she quickly starts down the path of transformation into what DAYBREAKERS calls “Subsiders,” vampires driven insane and twisted into an almost demonic state (see the above picture). With deformed bodies and an unthinking bloodlust they stalk beneath the streets and lurk in the dark corners of the world of DAYBREAKERS, and the combination of practical and CGI work that brings them to life is impressive, terrifying, and once again based in a place of reality insofar as how a human might biologically devolve into these strange, bat-like creatures. The power of using practical effects combined with CGI enhancement is what sets these creatures apart from many other monster representations of late, and causes them to be that much more visceral and frightening. It is essential for us as an audience to be genuinely grossed out by and fear these creatures, otherwise there is zero drama in the chance that any vampire character could become this way. And you may say “grossed out by? Dude, those things were tame compared to some of the other shit I’ve seen in horror movies!” But I mean more grossed out in principle, and here’s where we can shift into what make DAYBREAKERS such an essential experiment with the vampire mythology.

To be blunt, I find DAYBREAKERS to be one of the best metaphors in recent cinematic history for the way our world is and the human condition. F*** you AVATAR, you’ve got nothing on a small genre movie about a vampire virus that tears the world apart. Everything the vampire community does in this movie, whether it be the way business runs or the self-interested decision making of those in power, what people are willing to do to survive and carry on in the face of imminent destruction, or the lengths people go to avoid the harsh reality of death and replace it with an illusion of life – these are all struggles that we as human beings face every single day. There is a constant struggle to find an inner balance, to discover a place where we don’t need to sacrifice others for our own gain, a place where we can face the reality of the world no matter how harsh and scary that reality may be. People die, their families and friends go on, and sometimes we follow the example of Bromley character or Edward’s brother and do terrible things to save the ones we love.

And this is, in part, the way DAYBREAKERS is so important to the evolution of vampire mythology – it represents a return to the original intention of the book DRACULA, in terms of serving as a blunt and bloody metaphor for that dark place in ourselves. That’s what vampires do, that’s what they are – sometimes sexual, sometimes scary, always primal and without inhibition. They are everything in us we fear to admit exists or refuse to understand, everything within we are unable to make peace with and so repress instead in the hopes that it all fades away. The evolution then becomes how DAYBREAKERS takes it to a societal level, expanding the merely personal resonance of past vampiric tales into a greater place.

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"Who are you?"
"We're the folks with the crossbows."

We haven’t even really touched on the often-excellent crafting of story, shots, and sequences in DAYBREAKERS, though I also won’t go into every example because there are just so many I’d run out of room. But some standout sequences and moments include the cutting between the approaching vampires and the painful process Edward goes through to find the cure, the wretched and pitiful Subsider death march into the sunlight, the shafts of sunlight beaming through bullet holes in Edward’s car as he and the two humans race away from the vampires, and the slow-motion scene towards the end of the vampire soldiers tearing each other apart that almost resembles a painting. DAYBREAKERS also has the curiously cool habit of taking what you expect from a genre movie and shifting it just enough to be seen as new and inventive – with the shafts of light I just mentioned, for example, what could have been a generic car chase was transformed by an intense evolution of the stakes. Or there are those times in which the gore you’ve been expecting/hoping for happens at an unexpected moment, such as the impaling of the soldier’s on the bridge or the explosion after testing the blood substitute. There’s a good amount of gore for those who like it, but it always happens just when you’re not expecting it and so becomes fresh. And these days, that sort of fresh is essential to maintaining an audience’s interest in your genre piece.

Finally there’s the very important point that DAYBREAKERS is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a vampire story with real bite. It asks hard questions about the way we work, why we do what we do, and what we would be willing to give up in exchange for another chance at “life.” People do all sorts of things in the name of survival, whether they’re necessary or not. So what would you do? Even in the face of a severe blood crisis, after having been able to stop worrying about death, disease, and loss, would you stay a vampire? Would you agree with Bromley when he says “what’s to cure?” Or would you fight for something different because of the human cost (both literal and figurative) of that same vampiric state? Where does the line of necessity end and that of insanity begin? DAYBREAKERS asks these interesting questions, synthesizes vampire mythology with out world (with modernity), and in doing so becomes a very relevant, entertaining, and powerful piece of genre work.

DAYBREAKERS has gore, more gore, action, great creature design, crossbows, vampires, a bit of romance, a distinct and crisp visual style, good acting, and an engaging journey with both personal and societal ramifications – this movie really comes packaged with something for everyone. So do yourself a favor and check it out if you haven’t already – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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"Elvis Presley once said: 'truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain't going away.'"

Extra Tidbit: What's your favorite vampire movie? Mine will probably always be LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, but DAYBREAKERS is definitely up there.
Source: JoBlo.com

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