'Daybreakers' & Weaponizing Concepts
It's notoriously difficult to come up with an original idea these days. So many films/novels/TV shows are released that stories themselves are falling to the wayside in favour of flashy special effects or gimmicks to help disguise a lack of originality. At the same time, it seems simpler to create a world and its rules when exploring new ideas for texts; concepts can often seem new and exciting, almost intoxicating in the creative process.
The only problem is, sometimes it's easy for films and shows to fall victim to the 'Concept Pit' (catchy name right?) - where a text is so in love with its formulative idea that it forgets to build a narrative that comprehensively makes use of it.
Movies like The Purge and Waterworld contain bold and exciting ideas, but fall victim to a number of factors. For example, The Purge's insistence on focusing on an isolated incident such as a break-in during a crime-riddled evening where there are no consequences makes sense on a narrative level. However it never makes full use of its concept in order to aid the self-contained narrative. Instead, it serves as a slight home-invasion thriller where an interesting idea is kept to the sidelines. Waterworld on the other-hand, as grand as it may be, never takes the time to explain the rules of its world completely. This is partly due to its fantasy-like nature. It slowly reveals facts about the water-based world Kevin Costner and co. live in whilst attempting to host set-piece after set-piece of explosions and plot that mess with your attention.
Whilst exposition text at the beginning of a film is usually regarded as lazy, there are of course worlds and concepts that benefit from giving away such information beforehand...
Enter Daybreakers, a 2010 thriller written & directed by Peter and Michael Spierig. This underrated gem of a genre piece is a vampire film first and foremost, with one of the most intuitive and well-presented worlds I've seen in recent memory. Sure a lot of its ideas are hardly revolutionary, but it's the presentation and transparency of its world building that allow it to transform it's strong concept into one that effortlessly flows into the film's ongoing narrative - one that easily justifies the film's action and characters. It weaponizes its own concept.
Minor spoilers for Daybreakers after the image below. But you should definitely check it out.
First, there's the flash of a bat onscreen. Then a farmhouse at sunrise. A young girl writes a note to her parents before heading outside before the light breaks through the trees. She looks up to reveal amber irises. We see her note contains words such as 'never grow up' and 'can't go on' - it's a suicide note. Immediately the sun bursts her into flames. This is all within a minute. Already the audience knows she was a vampire from the clip of the bat, and knows how to differentiate them from their eye colour and that vampires can't grow old thanks to the girl's note. We also know they're relatively modern in their lifestyle, still living in a regular farmhouse. These aren't your classical vampires.
Next through cleverly-designed (and satirical) opening credits we're given context for this new world through real-world adverts and street signs. These vignettes tell us all we need to know. A virus from bats has turned humans into vampires and changed the way society works. We're now night-people, with underground tunnels used for travel at daytime.
We're then introduced to a news debate on television in which we're told 'humans were offered a chance to assimilate but they refused. Therefore they are enemies of the state and will be captured and farmed for blood supply'. Done. Three minutes in and the audience is up to date with the central concept and the way this world works. It's compact writing for sure, and hardly eloquent but for a film such as this it doesn't need to be. This is a pulpy genre action-thriller, and from here on out the rest of the details can be figured out naturally through context and character actions.
But how does this 'weaponize' the concept? Well to answer that we're going to need to look at a few other examples and isolate the narrative from the concept. Take Inside Out for example. The concept is that everyone's brains are controlled by conscious emotions that live inside them and operate what you think and feel. The narrative for Inside Out is about Sadness and Joy working together to make it back to headquarters before their human (Riley) puts herself in danger. Hell even something like Liar Liar fits the bill. The concept is that someone loses the ability to lie after their son makes a birthday wish, but the narrative that puts it to use weaponizes that by making the lead a lawyer - a professional whose entire career rests on the fact that they can bend the truth.
Daybreakers' narrative arrives naturally from its concept. A small group of humans interrupt the work of a vampire hematologist (Ethan Hawke) who's working on a substitute for human blood, which is in short supply. They present a possible cure to the vampirism that has overtaken the world, but at the cost of reverting them back into humans and backtracking the advances society has made since the change.
The film's real-world political parallels are toyed with to great effect, with Sam Neill Charles Bromley (owner of the largest blood-supplier in the U.S.) suitably hamming-up every scene he's in and embedding the concept as a sly piece of vampire-fuelled satire on modern culture. Many films fail to utilise their concept by attempting to tell a story that doesn't fit into the world they've created, yet here the stereotypical human rebels in a dystopian-like environment template actually fits. Of course, it helps that one of the survivors is Willem Dafoe.
What separates Daybreakers from others of its ilk is the thought put into world details and backstory. Classical versions of vampires are adhered to too and shown as a byproduct of what blood-deficiency looks like for our night-hunting characters. They become feral and monstrous when compared to their suited-and-chic sophisticated selves. That in itself would have been enough to fuel a dozen b-movies of varying degrees. Yet here it's used to ground the film's atmosphere, contain a couple of cool little action sequences and nothing more. It's the type of film I'm surprised there hasn't been expansions of in book or comic form.
It's all about the synergy between concept and narrative. Films like Bong Joon-Ho's Snowpiercer work because the narrative offers the expected and awaiting narrative one would expect in a train that housed society and separated them by class. And whilst Daybreakers doesn't manage to quite stick its landing due to its insistence on remaining an action film, it goes further than most with really quite a little. The Spierig Brothers managed to repeat their storytelling synergy with Predestination a few years later - based off of -All You Zombies- by Robert A. Heinlein. But there the narrative unveiled premise facts gradually as part of the film's mystery. In order to weaponize a strong concept the story you're telling has to originate from it organically. Audiences can tell when ideas are forced together through other means, and many of the cracks can begin to show no matter how talented the filmmakers are.
Whilst there are certainly other films to Daybreakers that utilise the idea better, I just wanted an excuse to talk a little bit about a film I don't think gets the attention it deserves. So if you're looking for a fun and swift piece of genre fare, you could do much worse...
Drop me an email at email@example.com if you'd like me to talk about a particular film or tv show and let me know if you like me or not (please say you do, I'm not good at handling rejection).
Daybreakers is available now on Netflix in the UK.
It is also available on DVD, Blu-Ray and 4K.
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