Thursday, February 3, 2011

Film Analysis: Daybreakers

I stumbled upon the trailer for Daybreakers online quite some time ago, and immediately added it to my Netflix queue. I’ve finally gotten around to watching it, having found myself in the mood for a film rooted in horror. The reason I was so eager to see this one in the first place, though, was that the trailer made it quite apparent that the screenplay used the vampire phenomenon as a metaphor for modern dependence on scarce resources, particularly foreign oil. Watching the film, I found that that metaphor was presented in such obvious terms as to not call for any real comment.

It is not until the resolution to the plot that the film comes to say much more than “We can’t live without this, it’s killing people, and we’re running out.” I would point out, then, that as with any film analyses I do, this makes no effort to conceal plot points for anyone who has not seen the movie.

The basic background of the story is that by the year 2019, the world has become overrun with vampires, such that they are now the dominant society, with human beings either farmed for their blood or in hiding somewhere out in the countryside. The central protagonist is a vampire hematologist hard at work on the production of a synthetic substitute for human blood, which is distributed as is any consumer good in ordinary human society, and which it is painfully obvious is rapidly running out. We learn in time that the doctor is driven not only by concerns over the survival of his species, but by a moral imperative to protect the victims of systematic blood harvesting. In a plot point that I was pleased to discover closely parallels my own current position as a vegetarian sausage maker, the main character, who even shares my first name, is said to be employed by a company that makes its money through the capture and killing of human beings while personally abstaining completely from the drinking of human blood, relying instead on that of less nourishing animals.

The situation of increasing scarcity and the imperative search for an alternate source of the same basic good blatantly mimics the familiar energy crisis and the increasing emphasis on solar power, wind turbines, nuclear plants, and the like. Scatterings of dialogue throughout the film present the notion that a replacement for human blood will never truly solve the vampires’ problem, which is, ultimately, that they (read: we) are all vampires. The implicit thesis thus seems to be that green technology can be nothing more than a short term fix, with the underlying problem being society’s insatiable demand for energy. In the film, it is taken for granted that there is simply no alternative to vampirism until Ed, played by Ethan Hawke, comes in contact with a man who goes by the name of Elvis, played by Willem Dafoe, who had been a vampire until a non-lethal dose of sunlight brought him back to life and mortality. At this point, Ed takes up with a group of human hold-outs and endeavors to recreate the cure.

Also at this point, the major setting changes, and we find ourselves transported from a sprawling metropolis filled from top to bottom with fluorescent light to a bucolic, starlit vineyard supporting a small community of friendly, driven people. This is the first distinct thematic push beyond the very basic metaphor, and the filmmakers seem to begin to advocate returning to a largely rural way of life as a means of reducing energy demand and strengthening community ties. This may seem simple and naïve at first blush, but as the film goes on, it becomes easier to conclude that the alternative being hinted at is a bit more nuanced than the notion of everyone just dropping everything and taking off for the hills and planting a family garden. Ed manages to make himself human again, but it requires risk, sacrifice, experimentation, multiple trials, and enormous pain.

But it is with the eventual conclusion that it becomes clear that the future envisioned for us is not to be expected to be easy, straightforward, or pleasant. Ed discovers that the cure for vampirism can be spread through the blood of a former vampire, and subsequently tricks his unscrupulous employer into biting him and unwittingly turning himself human again. The thematic statement that I take from that scene is that once someone in a position of power learns the alternative to our old ways of living and spreads that thinking elsewhere in the upper class, vested interests cannot reject it. The idea is too powerful, too necessary to not take hold against any efforts to suppress it.

And yet the transition threatens to make the entire world briefly much worse, as the lingering reliance on scarce resources yields a terrible upsurge in bloodshed before the new humanity can take hold. Once human blood courses through the veins of a few former vampires, they are ravenously attacked by the others, who are still in desperate need of it. The cure passes from one to another, and all continue to fall upon one another until only a handful of men are left in the room, surrounded by the ravaged bodies of those who had simply purged themselves of their need earlier, and shaken by what they have done. The suggestion is evidently that even once some of us have solved our energy and food crises, wars will go on escalating and the strong will continue to exploit the weak.

It is not a rosy picture, but ultimately it may be a realistic one. And when the final shots show our heroes greeting the sunrise over the carnage left by the old world and later speeding away from the vampiric city and back to their modest, self-reliant, and decidedly human rural setting, we are meant to think that it is the picture of a lovely future that makes the awful suffering that will come first worthwhile.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this writeup. I just finished the movie and your post was the first thing that came up when I was trying to find out if the movie was about energy scarcity or if it was just me.