Ethan Hawke in 'Daybreakers.'

Last Call

Everyone remembers Twilight, but a better vampire movie rode its sparkling coattails

Sometimes a good movie comes out at a bad time.

Lionsgate

Vampires invading the realm of science fiction aren’t unheard of. Colin Wilson’s 1976 novel The Space Vampires became the basis for the 1985 sci-fi bomb Lifeforce. Both the 1966 Star Trek and the 1979 Buck Rogers dealt with sci-fi vampires in different guises. But it wasn’t until 2009 that mainstream science fiction really took vampires into the future.

Daybreakers is both a massively underrated vampire flick and a fascinating sci-fi movie, and it’s well worth another look on HBO Max.

For fans of early-aughts sci-fi horror, it's tempting to compare Daybreakers to the Underworld movies. Both have similar gray-blue color palettes, and both want to trade on the basic mood of The Matrix. But, whereas Underworld takes the existence of slick vampires in the present day as a given (ala’ Highlander), Daybreakers asserts a science fiction reason as to why vampires exist — and dominate society — in the future. Instead of “the machines” in the Matrix harvesting humans, it's vampires.

The fact that vampires exist and are in control of the world is one of Daybreakers’ most compelling elements. In most vampire narratives, the vamps hide in the shadows and live secret lives. Here, that’s flipped, and humans are trying to hide their humanity. It’s tempting to say this makes Daybreakers closer to a zombie apocalypse flick, but that’s not quite right either. The vampires here are obviously intelligent and controlling in a way that zombies usually aren’t.

The mastermind vampire, who controls most of the world’s blood supply, is Charles Bromley, played brilliantly by Sam Neill. The excellent cast doesn’t stop there. Daybreakers also stars Ethan Hawke as Edward Dalton, a vampire with a guilty conscience (classic) who wants to be human again and eventually leads a revolution. And then there’s Willem Dafoe as Elvis Cormac, another vampire-turned-human, played creepily and brilliantly as only Willem Dafoe can.

In a sense, Daybreakers has more in common with one of the newer Planet of the Apes movies than it does other vampire flicks. Although contemporary critics unfairly compared it to The Matrix, the movie is so much more. If Daybreakers were remade with an entirely different aesthetic but more or less the same cast, it could be a hit.

As it stands, 2009 was a strange time for genre films. Although Iron Man was a hit the previous year, the biggest sci-fi movie was J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot, decidedly the antithesis of something like Daybreakers. These days, it's reasonable, and even expected, for genre TV and films to be seriously considered by critics. But, arguably, Daybreakers wasn’t given that consideration, partly because of media bias, and partly because of how it looked.

Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe in Daybreakers. Yes, that is a shotgun with a crossbow on top.Lionsgate

This isn’t to say that Daybreakers is a flawless masterpiece. It has its share of problems, and it certainly contains a few head-scratching moments. And yet it tends to be overlooked in most discussions about modern vampire films, because in the early aughts there were a lot of them. This was the era of Twilight. Edward Cullen owned the corner market on day-walking vampires, which left Daybreakers searching for a mainstream audience.

Maybe, if Daybreakers is ever rebooted or remade, Pattinson could be convinced to star in it, providing the ultimate revenge. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a convincing twist on vampires with a surprising amount of star power, Daybreakers should be dragged out of the shadows.

Daybreakers is streaming on HBO Max through January 31.

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