So, aside from my exciting life of international adventure, cybercrime, ballroom dancing exhibitions, and writing novels, I sometimes find myself on a couch with The Duchess and 2-3 cats at night, watching terrible, terrible movies. We like movies and have a very low bar for them, meaning we’ll watch almost anything. I am a man who paid for a ticket to view the classic John Candy film “Who’s Harry Crumb?” back when I was a teenager. Which dates me terribly, but if anyone has actually seen that horrible film it will give you an idea of how low my movie bar is.
The other night the movie Daybreakers leaped that bar with aplomb, did a few tumbles, and landed on our TV screen. To be honest I was intrigued by the concept even though I knew the movie had been made in 2007 and shelved for a few years, even though I knew it starred Ethan Hawke, who always looks unwashed and makes me want to Windex my screen whenever he’s on it. (To be fair, I usually enjoy Hawke as an actor. I just wish he’d stop writing). I thought the idea behind the movie was a good one: While it takes the tired old “vampire virus sweeps the world” idea, it has an interesting capitalist take: Once the world is mostly vampires, people just monetize human blood, start farming the remaining humans as livestock, and invert society so everyone can get on with their (immortal) lives at night.
I really like this. It makes sense to me: Once the horror of the whole world turning into vampires has past and everyone’s sitting around at night kind of bored, why wouldn’t society just retool for the new rules? The movie imagines a world that sleeps by day and works by night, cars that are modified to have “day driving” modes with tinted windows and cameras for steering, coffee kiosks offering 20% human blood in each cup, and an evil pharmaceutical company simultaneously farming humans for blood and researching synthetic blood. I like the setup.
Sadly, the movie itself is not so great. It establishes the universes pretty well and has some very nicely done design and effects, but ultimately degenerates into magical science solutions and characters with motivations so vague they might as well not exist. Sigh. But I’m not here to indict another failed narrative, I’m here to talk about special effects, and how often they are completely, utterly wasted in movies.
So, you have vampires. These are more like traditional vampires, not Twilight vampires: They need human blood to survive. They do not have reflections in mirrors. Sunlight kills them kind of gruesomely. A wooden stake through the heart makes them burst into bloody confetti. They don’t turn into bats at will, but blood deprivation makes them devolve into a bat-humanoid monstrosity with no higher brain functions. In a movie filled with vampires there are very few actual F/X shots; I don’t think the budget for the film was huge, and the directors probably had to be pretty picky about where they spent their paltry millions on effects shots. Sadly, they chose poorly.
For example, early in the film when Ethan Hawke’s character is introduced, we see his car first. A shot zooms in on the side mirror, and we see a pretty traditional WOW shot of things floating in the air, disembodied (because he has no reflection) and then the camera spins around to show us Hawke, looking normal aside from slightly glowing eyes and fangs etc. The shot itself is nicely done, and achieves what I suppose was the goal: Establishing that these are vampires. It’s pointless, though. The vampiric lack of reflection never comes up again as a plot point, and there are plenty of other ways the characters are established as vampires (glowing eyes, fangs, a tendency to drink blood and burn horribly in the sun). So what was the point? They blew millions of dollars to underscore something that didn’t need to be underscored. It’s a nifty shot, yes, but there might have been better ways to spend the money. If you removed that 30 seconds of film the movie would not be appreciably changed in any way.
This is often the trouble with F/X shots. You have some movies, like Transformers, where the entire damn movie is one long F/X shot, but then you have the lower-end SF films where the budget is not infinite, and the decision to include some F/X is a momentous one. They’re usually bad choices because no one seems to know how to use them to further the story – or to know that if you don’t need the F/X to further the story, it’s possibly best to just leave it out. Daybreakers could have spent that money on another writer to come up with a better ending than the mumbo-jumbo they put out there. If the lack of reflection had come up again later, been important in some way, that would have improved things considerably, but aside from an aversion to the sun and a deterioration due to blood deprivation the fact that most of the characters are vampires doesn’t really come up much in the plot mechanics.
Of course, you could argue that the concept of the film precluded a lot of vampiric F/X – the whole point is that humans roll with the vampire thing, recreate their materialistic world (except now literally feeding off of people!) and get back to drinking and smoking and wearing stylish suits while living in fabulous homes. It’s not about horror or action, it’s about society running out of resources and turning in on itself like a starving dog. Or it should have been, except for the mumbo jumbo ending, which makes no sense in that context.
Oh well. A better ending, of course, would have improved this movie a lot more than one unnecessary F/X shot, but better endings are a little more amorphous and difficult to quantify, whereas $5 million for 30 seconds of useless film is easy to tally up. Lord knows if they ever make an Avery Cates film, I hope they spend $20 million to build complex Monk robots with animatronic faces instead of just hiring guys to wear latex masks, and then someone will remind me of this essay when they spend $20 million on a single shot of a hover floating in the air and then the rest of the movie is stick figures and stock footage because they blew the budget, and i will despair.