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Raise the Stakes Through the Hearts

MOVIE REVIEW
Daybreakers (2010)

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Ben Rothstein/Lionsgate

On its mission to suck the unoriginality out of the vampire canon, “Daybreakers” can’t avoid the familiar altogether. Traces of Alfonso Cuarón’s future-citizens-in-revolt “Children of Men,” itself an adaptation of P. D. James’s 1992 novel, are all over this breakneck action-horror hybrid written and directed by Australian brothers Michael and Peter Spierig. Both follow a disenchanted brainiac (here, Ethan Hawke’s reluctant bloodsucker Edward Dalton) who’s also humanity’s last hope. In the 2019-set world of “Daybreakers,” vampires have taken over, leaving only 5 percent of the human race still breathing — which, in turn, means that the now-rulers’ life liquid (human blood) is running out. Dalton, a top-ranked hematologist, stumbles across a cure, though vampires toting automatic weapons and sporadic geysers of dark-red blood make enacting the solution difficult as expected.

Channeling “Children of Men” with dignity intact is no small feat for any film, let alone a hard-R-rated horror entry. The Spierig brothers have approached a now-tired subgenre oversaturated with romanticized vampires in the neutered “Twilight” franchise and HBO’s superior “True Blood,” with ample ingenuity. Their future is wholly realized, an undead landscape intelligently conceptualized with reverence to its source mythology. In daylight, vampires ride around in cars equipped with blacked-out windows and camera access to the road; instead of cream in their coffee, cold blood offsets the drink’s heat. The finest of the red stuff is sold in wine bottles. Almost makes flesh-eating immortality enviable.

If only the vamps sipping on those Type-A lattes had more to offer. “Daybreakers” is certainly well staged and convincingly acted, turning its somewhat vapid script into a slight party-crasher. The characters are types-with-fangs; the good-natured antihero (Mr. Hawke), the wise-cracker (Willem Dafoe), the villain (Sam Neill) who’s abandoned his child. Hell, there’s even a fearless heroine/pseudo love interest (Claudia Karvan). It’s a good thing, then, that the actors themselves don’t care. Mr. Hawke’s nuanced central performance lends a firm credibility to a film that’s unafraid to splatter brains across the screen (thanks to a nifty shock moment cut from the “Scanners” cloth, which is always welcome). Similarly, Mr. Dafoe relishes his witty, ex-vamp freedom fighter role with the same vigor seen in 2002’s “Spider-Man;” and Mr. Neill, reemerging from an extended period of big-screen anonymity, gnaws scenery as a Donald Trump-like tycoon with a money-stack for a heart.

The Spierig brothers, only on their second film, are working with something special, a fearless and innovative spirit sorely needed in horror. “Daybreakers” is a vast improvement on the siblings’ 2003 debut — the fun but minor zombie flick “Undead” — though a few script rewrites short of maximum impact. It’s an exercise in purely visual entertainment — hold any emotional connection. “Avatar,” meet your horror counterpart.

DAYBREAKERS

Opens on Jan. 8 in the United States and Jan. 6 in Britain.

Written and directed by the Spierig Brothers; director of photography, Ben Nott; edited by Matt Villa; music by Christopher Gordon; production designer, George Liddle; visual effects by Postmodern Sydney, Kanuka Studio and the Spierig Brothers; produced by Sean Furst, Bryan Furst and Chris Brown; released by Lionsgate. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Ethan Hawke (Edward Dalton), Willem Dafoe (Lionel Cormac), Claudia Karvan (Audrey Bennett), Michael Dorman (Frankie Dalton), Vince Colosimo (Christopher Caruso), Isabel Lucas (Alison Bromley) and Sam Neill (Charles Bromley).

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