"Daybreakers" takes place in a world that's been overrun by vampire movies --- I mean vampires. And it's clear enough that the filmmakers, the twin-brother writer-director team Peter and Michael Spierig, have tried to bring some spark of originality to the modern-day vampire genre, which, between "True Blood," the "Twilight" series, and a forthcoming American remake of the Swedish child-vampire film "Let the Right One In," sometimes really does seem to have taken over the world.
In "Daybreakers," Ethan Hawke plays Edward Dalton, a hematologist vampire (with a conscience) who's desperately trying to find a substitute for human blood. The problem, you see, is that now that the world is populated mostly by vampires with the gift of everlasting life, humans are an endangered species and their blood is in short supply. Edward doesn't much like being a vampire -- he was "turned" by his brother, Frankie (Michael Dorman), a soldier in the vampire military -- and so when he meets a band of survivor humans who just may have found a way to turn vampires back into regular folk again, he agrees to help.
The Spierigs know what a crazy tale they've concocted, and they're unapologetic about its semi-predictable plot twists and cheesy dialogue. At one point Edward, who's begun to refuse to drink human blood -- a course of nonaction that threatens to turn him into a bat-zombie -- turns down the shot of hemoglobin on ice his brother is trying to force on him. A moodily existential conversation follows: "Life sucks," Edward states morosely, "and then you don't die."
This is an invented world in which a certain degree of care, if not necessarily a lot of money, has been lavished on the look and production design. The Spierigs give us a vampire world straight out of '40s noir: The men wear suits and fedoras; the women favor tight, fitted wiggle dresses, crimson lips and wash-and-set hairdos. Vamps get their daily dose of blood stirred into a cup o' joe, which they might buy at a coffee bar that resembles an old-fashioned stainless steel lunch counter. The Spierigs are in love with these retro touches, and there are enough of them to keep things interesting for the movie's first half-hour or so.
But after that, the going gets rougher. The movie's pace goes all wobbly; the action sequences are rushed and harried, as if no one had bothered to think them out beforehand. There's very little outright gore in "Daybreakers" -- the most graphic scene is one in which a bat-zombie is killed and decapitated with gooey efficiency. But there are very few thrills, either, and the movie's meandering, wayward quality quickly becomes wearisome.
Hawke gives his all here -- or maybe just half his all -- and it isn't quite enough: He's trying to be soulful, but he really just looks a little tired. The real delight is Willem Dafoe, as the rednecky leader of the survivor humans. "I'm Lionel Cormac," he says, in a lazy, laid-back drawl, as he introduces himself to Hawke's Edward. "But my friends call me Elvis."
Dafoe sure works a lot these days: Last year alone, he played a controlling husband in Lars von Trier's amazing and harrowing "Antichrist," a shifty hipster rat in Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and a slick, mustachioed something-or-other in Paul Weitz's "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant," to name just three roles (and there were others). That's a pretty wide-ranging variety of movies for just one guy. But I don't think Dafoe's choices are indiscriminate: Even when he's playing a small part in an otherwise not-very-good picture, more often than not, he makes his own little corner of that movie shine. That's what he does in "Daybreakers": When Edward asks Elvis if the safe house to which the humans have decamped is really safe, he responds, in his easy drawl, "Is it safe? Being here in a world full of vampires is about as safe as barebackin' a $5 whore." Dafoe finds the poetry in that line and makes it howl like a hound dog on moonshine.