May 14, 2010

Undead Neo

I watch a lot of films that are never mentioned on The Nowhere Nickelodeon. Part of this may be symptomatic of the embarrassment I sometimes feel of the amount of time I spend watching films. But then I have to remind myself that I don’t think that film is a waste of time. That’s why I got my BA in Film and Digital Media, and it’s why I will drive forty-five minutes to the next county to see Iron Man 2 (which was sort of a shrug movie, all in all.) I am not particularly consistent in my watching-taste; I’ll watch almost anything that made it into a theater, with some exceptions. I don’t watch horror films. I don’t watch torture porn films. I rarely watch “scary movies.” I don’t have much of an appreciation for thrillers, though given the right cast/director I will occasionally indulge. I have no love for film noir, especially not if it was made anytime after 1960. And despite my deep, undying, irrational love for Indepedence Day, I rarely watch end-of-the-world flicks any longer, and especially not when they are made by Roland Emmerich, also known as, The Guy Who Makes Movies In Which Major Cities Suffer Unforeseen Natural/Supernatural Disasters. He also made Stargate, another film I have a deep, undying, irrational love for. I don’t know what happened after Indepedence Day (Godzilla), Ronald, but for the love of God, get a hobby.

Anyway. The reason I don’t write extensively about the vast majority of the films I watch in any given week is that most of the time I don’t have a whole lot to say about them. So much of what passes through our cinemas is so unremarkable that there really isn’t anything to say about it. Critics complain that it’s the internet that is stealing their columns’ thunder, but in all honesty I think it has more to do with what they’re critiquing: movies so familiar/boring/bland that reading a couple paragraphs about them in the local paper requires more time than the average person feels said movies deserve. And I sort of have to agree. Between the films so bad that to read a review of them is a vicious delight and the films so good that critics actually write solid, insightful pieces about them there is a vast, monotonous wasteland of films that very little can be said of. Formulaic rom-coms, tried and true action epics (complete with requisite male protagonist origin story/child star cameo), magic dog stories, cheaply produced kid-targeted CGI projects, buddy cop movies, things starring Jennifer Aniston, Nicolas Sparks “novel” adaptations, flaccid biopics of that famous _______ who just died, crass and likely sexist movies aimed at the 13-19 demographic, and melancholic indie films about 20-something year old manboy on anti-depressants whose salvation lies in that manic pixie dream girl over there. There is rarely anything that anyone can say about any of these films because we have seen them so often, in so many mutations, that no one in their right mind expects anything new, challenging, or worthy of intellectual investigation in any of them. I dare you to try and find a person went to see The Bounty Hunter because they were seeking intellectual stimulation. Find me the person who watches the trailer for Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore 3D and thinks, I am so curious to see what my local critic has to say about the use of cinematography, match-cut editing, and non-diegetic sound in this 3D film about spy cats and spy dogs that fly biplanes (poster byline: Just like real spies… only furrier.)

The movies that are most interesting to write about are the ones a) are so glaringly flawed that you can gleefully rip them apart, mocking inconsistencies, casting choices, and bafflingly daft artistic choices, or b) do something so new and interesting (however small a thing) that it reminds you why you bother wading through all the cinematic garbage searching for treasure. I tend to get the most incensed about films that could be great, but needlessly bungle something that effectively negates all the good qualities of said film. This week’s workshop study: Daybreakers (Michael and Peter Spierig, 2009). This is a movie about vampires. I know, I know. Vampires again. BUT what is truly shocking about Daybreakers is it manages to do a totally new take on vampires, something that you’d think would be totally and completely impossible in this post Twilight world of ours. It also has Ethan Hawke in it (=my reason for bothering to watch this. I have a deep and abiding love for all things Ethan Hawke. I don’t know why, but there you go. I’m a child of the 90s.) So the concept that Daybreakers presents and then completely unnecessarily complicates to the point of cinematic implosion (more on this in a moment) is that vampires have taken over the world and humans are now basically being Matrix-ed into extinction. It sounds pretty simple, and so long as it remains simple it remains interesting. The high concept is pretty well thought out; the world is basically deserted during the daytime, despite technological advancements allowing vampires to traverse the sunlit world without harm (cars with blacked out windows and roof-mounted cameras, an underground travel system cleverly called the “Underwalk.”) At night refreshingly creepy vampires go about their undead lives, and it’s a weird mirror image world where everything is pretty much the same, but not quite. That’s not milk in your coffee. It’s blood. That’s not a homeless guy. That’s a blood-starved/crazed mutant vampire. And that is where things start to get convoluted. You could argue that Daybreakers is a social awareness documentary about sustainable agriculture and civic duty cleverly disguised as a vampire horror film. For some crazyass reason, the vampires didn’t see fit to replenish the residual human population as they systematically hunted them down and drained their blood, so there is now a massive blood shortage. Vampire Sam Neill comes out and admits that there’s only enough blood left to feed the population for a month. Now, I know it seems a little ridiculous to watch a vampire movie and then scoff at the anachronisms in the vampire economy, but I am just that kind of lady. A month? And you’re just bringing this up... now? Even though you for all purposes appear to be an extremely modern and streamlined society complete with government funded public works (Underwalk), a day-functional police force, and coffee kiosks? I am sorry Mr. Spierig and Mr. Spierig, but I am just not buying that.

On top of this basic flaw in the high concept that is the draw of this whole venture, the plot is a mess. At the bare bones of it is a tried and true recipe for success: sympathetic male protagonist changes teams and rectifies the injustices visited on his new team by his old team. It is 2009 favorite science fiction plot line. Avatar, District 9… it’s pretty difficult to go wrong with a good old-fashioned team changing plotline. Ethan Hawke’s character is a vampire-scientist searching for a synthetic blood substitute. It slowly becomes apparent that his motivation in doing so lies with his sympathy for the humans, who are basically being factory farmed in a super-Matrix-reminiscent futuristic slaughterhouse/bloodletting facility. In a clear cut, simple team-changing plot, Vampire Ethan should through extenuating circumstances find himself in the care of the human resistance, slowly align with them and earn their trust, and then re-enter the vampire world only to sabotage it and save the day. I am not saying that this is the only way it could work; I’m just saying that this is the usual progression, and Daybreakers would have been just fine had it followed suit. Instead we get crazy Willem Dafoe, a human colony that avoids detection by just living at a winery, a completely unconvincing “cure” for vampirism, an increasingly complicated crazy-homeless-mutant-vampire-outbreak side plot, and a finale that makes every single character look really, really stupid and illogical. We get really awful supporting actors, a totally uninteresting female protagonist, and a really bizarre scene in which a troop of homeless-mutant-vampires are killed in the most inefficient way imaginable (a chained march into an open air courtyard, where they one by one flambĂ©.) I just do not understand why all of this was necessary. The concept was cool enough to hold the film together, had the film’s plot stayed a manageable and navigatable size. Not every movie needs to be frickin’ Primer is all I’m saying.

The idea is pretty interesting, and it’s refreshing to see vampires who act like vampires. There isn’t a trace of sparklage anywhere in this movie. There is a lot of over-the-top gore for gore’s sake, but it’s sort of nice. It provides some much needed balance to the vampire universe. We see your sparkles and R-Patz and raise you a barrage of grisly decapitations. Something to tide us over until True Blood starts up again in mid-June. Mark your calendars people.


  1. Dear Carolyn,
    1. I found out you have a film blog!
    2. Vampire Sam Neill? You know how I feel about Sam Neill.
    3. "Crazy Willem Dafoe" is redundant.
    4. Before you say you hate all film noir post-1960, I think you should see (or mentally revisit, since I find it kind of hard to imagine that there's a single movie in the world that I have seen and you have not, except for maybe Tiptoes with Matthew McConaughey) Bad Education. I really liked it, and think you would/do too, but it has a lot of nods to film noir.

    Love forever and ever,

  2. Dude, you are very right about Bad Education. Almost any of Pedro Almodovar's films could be called film noir, and I love almost anything he's directed. And, oddly, I do believe we saw Bad Education together at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz. I'm actually pretty positive about it. So, how about that?