Ethan Hawke is not someone I immediately think of when discussing the idea of an ‘action hero’ (even after the remake of Assault on Precinct 13), let alone someone who appears in obvious genre movies. However, his nervy sensitivity is rather appropriate for his character in this film, which is an enjoyable slice of vampire-based action.
The film is set in a world not dissimilar from ours but where a change occurred 10 years previously that turned most people into vampires – vampires who don’t bloody ‘sparkle’ but burn up in sunlight (as seen by the suicide of a young girl in the opening sequence), who have no reflection, who have fangs and who must drink human blood to survive. Humans are an endangered species, and the world lives at night (there are some lovely shots of sunlit empty cityscapes), with shutters on their windows to block out light and stalls serving liquids with 20% blood. However, blood is running low and vampires who don’t drink blood for a prolonged stretch start to turn into more feral versions, with wings and more bat-like faces and scaly skin, with extra strength and speed.
This world-building is done well by the writers/directors, the Spierig brothers, and is perhaps the strongest aspect to the film, from the cool visual of eyes glowing in the dark as vampires smoking cigarettes wait for the subway, to the adverts that adorn the walls. (An aside – I wonder how this vampire world works. If everyone is a vampire, then surely they all want to do the vampire stuff; therefore, how do they get people to run the electricity plants to power everything, or people to do menial jobs like serve coffee or drive trains or sweep streets? Or am I over-thinking things?)
Hawke is the chief haematologist at the largest supplier of blood (they have huge banks of humans being drained), and he’s trying to find a synthetic alternative, but without much success. Hawke was turned and doesn’t feel comfortable being a vampire, so doesn’t drink blood any more, much to his brother’s annoyance (who is a soldier and happy being a vampire). Things change for Hawke when he helps some humans escape detection, leading him to interacting with a band of survivors and the potential for a cure in the form of Willem Dafoe.
It’s very odd to see a vampire film with Hawke, Dafoe (Cirque Du Freak had a similarly odd vibe, and I don’t think Shadow of a Vampire is quite the same) and Sam Neill (he plays the head of the blood corporation) – you don’t expect to see actors with such authority in genre flicks, which is suggestive of something although I don’t know what. The film sets up the parallel of current humanity overpopulating the earth and running out of resources, but doesn’t really delve into it. Instead, it seems more concerned about being human again, and how being human is so much better than being a vampire.
After the set-up, it turns more traditional – instead of getting back at man’s weakness (being vampire is easier than the alternative) and the ease with which we allow the evil of corporations to dominate us, it decides that Neill’s character is the epitome of evil who must be vanquished and personally punished in a vicious manner (having been tricked into being cured, he is tied to a chair and given to soldiers who haven’t eaten in a while, meaning we see the sight of Sam Neill being devoured by starving vampires, looking a bit like zombies eating on human flesh – there is an hilarious scene, set in slow-motion, of a foyer full of soldiers chomping down on cured former vampires, blood spurting from severed arteries; I don’t think it’s supposed to be played for laughs …), and ignores the moral ramifications of corporations and the collaboration by the rest of society.
There is also an unnecessary subplot about Neill’s human daughter that doesn’t add anything or do anything for the plot – the film suffers from a feeling that it’s not a film in its own right; it seems like the first in a hoped-for franchise or an expensive (well, not for film) pilot for a television series, especially with the ending. The ending goes for the openness of the ending of The Matrix but without providing a satisfying narrative conclusion on its own.