Thursday, January 14, 2010

Monstrous Musings

This is a guest post from contributor Natalie Wilson

Got Blood Privilege? A Review of Daybreakers

image

At my Seduced by Twilight blog, I have written about “Vampire Privilege” as thinly disguised white, hetero, male, middle-class, Christian privilege, arguing that the series champions traditional privileges and the societal norms that keep these privileges in place. The new film Daybreakers puts an entire new spin on vampire privilege, turning it into an all out class-war between the haves (the middle to upper class vampires) and the have-nots (the humans and the “subsiders”).

In the film, only 5% of the human population remains, everyone else is vampire. The haves are yuppie-type vamps who live in sleek homes in gated communities and drive cars decked out with drive-by-day features (which allow for safe driving in the vampire-death-inducing daylight). They can afford the Starbucks-esque coffee shops where blood is the new caffeine. The have-nots are the “subsiders,” or those vampires that live below street level in the “subwalk” system, unable to afford the life-sustaining red fluid. As detailed during a classified meeting at Bromley Marks, the bio-pharmaceutical company trying to create a blood substitute, subsiders suffer from blood deprivation, the effects of which turn one more savage bat-monster than metro-cool vampire.

The scenes inside the Bromley Marks corporate enclave hint at a world sharply divided along class, race, gender lines – all those in the confidential meetings are white males, the human they experiment on is a Private (not so far from historical experiments on military personnel), and the ads outside the building tout “infinitely white,” an advanced tooth whitener with an image of an attractive white female vampire baring her sexy-looking teeth.

In the opening montage, a homeless vampire holds a “starving: need blood” sign. He will undoubtedly devolve into a subsider soon, a “blood-deprived citizen” who will become more savage the longer he goes without blood.

Later, one of these subsiders breaks into Edward’s home (the good vampire haematologist played by Ethan Hawke). After Ed and his brother bring him to a particularly gory end, the cops show up and refer disparagingly to the subsiders, noting “these things are in the suburbs now” and referring to them as “filthy rats.” When Ed recognizes an engraved bracelet they find on the subsider’s corpse, he realizes that this sub was Carl, a local gardener. Here, the film hits at a racial/class divide where many don’t have the social capital to avoid blood deprivation.

Yet, the film doesn’t point the finger at corporatism, militarism, and race/class privilege enough if you ask me. As Historiann notes, there is a tendency to act as if inequality is everyone’s fault and NOT the result of corruption/greed at the top. This film falls into this tendency, suggesting that the devolution of society is everyone and everything’s fault rather than linking it specifically to a top-down societal model. It relies on an immersing the audience in an admittedly provocative visual world, but I wish all the eye-popping scenes of this fully realized vampire society would have been supplemented by stronger characters, better dialogue, and more directed critique.

In the film, Bromley Marks search for a viable blood substitute would make access to blood available to all, or so the unspoken corporate promise indicates. In actuality though, as Edward suspects, no such altruism lies behind the corporation headed by Charles Bromley (played by Sam Neill). When Ed asks him for a guarantee a blood substitute will put an end to human harvesting, he argues, with typical corporate aplomb, that “if we don’t cater to all markets, someone else will.” Later, more bluntly, he admits to Ed that “It’s never been about a cure, it’s about repeat business.” This, perhaps the most telling quote in the film, could be said of the real-world corporate response to many a social ills – as an example, going green is not only about saving the environment, it’s about selling more green products.

Disappointingly though, the film leaves its allegorical critiques under-realized. Even the continued emphasis on the unpleasant repercussions of living in a heavily militarized police state is shorn of its critical edge when the soldiers turn into blood crazed beasts during the gore-fest  ending. While the opportunity to depict the dehumanization that accompanies militarism was flirted with, the film failed to make any distinct critique or to link the blood-hungry corporatism ailing the Daybreaker world as part and parcel of a militarized society.

In the film, blood stands in most obviously for oil -- reports of global blood prices rising, blood riots, and blood related crime saturate the film. However, it seems that blood would more aptly be linked to water – something (unlike oil) that we can literally not live without. Access to water is also a have/have-not issue (in Iraq and South Africa, for example), with the privileged of the planet supping from “green” plastic bottles and the non-privileged living miles from the nearest well or having to spend hours in line hoping to get a scant amount of the precious fluid – a fluid that has been increasingly commodified over the last several decades. But, the film does not use its allegorical musings to interrogate water shortage – rather, it explores various contemporary issues – militarization, bio-pharm, corporate greed, dwindling natural resources, etc – so many, in fact, that none of these issues or allegorical narrative threads are played to their fullest. 

Thus, the film hints at the problems of living in a police state, the dangers of for-profit pharmaceutical industries, the violence that results from socio-economic disparity, yet it does not ever hook its analysis onto any one issue for long enough to allow for incisive critique. Instead, it examines a whole host of problems, never stopping to interrogate causes, symptoms, or solutions. Corny dialogue, a mood-manipulating score, and a rather predictable script turn what could have been an excellent allegory about a have/have-not system into your basic gore-fest. That, and the horrid line “Being human in a world of vampires is about as safe as barebacking a 5 dollar whore” left me hungry for a meatier (but less gratuitously bloody, less male-driven, and less white) narrative.

Alas, my beefs with the film are what made Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers like it. As he writes, “After all the toothless, limp-dick vampire posturing in the Twilight chick flicks, it's a kick to see a balls-out, R-rated movie about bloodsuckers that doesn't spare the gore so little girls won't cry into their Twitpics of Rob Pattinson.” Way to go Travers – hypermasculine posturing and misogyny masking as Twi-hatred all in one…

I for one would prefer more ovaries-out movies that reveal how attitudes like that of Travers are partly why we live in a non-gore sparing reality – more movies, say, like Teeth.