There is a goddamn amazing movie hidden inside Daybreakers. To preface my review, I'll give you the final word: you should see it. Despite the filler and the clichés, it has some powerful forces at work, and these make the movie worth the price of the ticket. However, if you're too hung up on the film's interspersed weaknesses, you may miss out on its not-inconsiderable accomplishments. I hope this review will give you a starting point to help sort those out.
You probably know this, but if you don't: Daybreakers takes place in a near future where vampires are the dominant species, and humans are their primary food source. Unfortunately for these highbrow vampires, the food supply is almost extinct, and if they run out of blood, their lives get very difficult (this is one of the movie's most interesting conceptual twists). Farming isn't working for them, and they're having trouble developing a blood substitute.
The protagonist, Edward (Ethan Hawke), is a scientist in pursuit of such a substitute, and he's one of the only vampires who's sympathetic to humans. His compassion sets him apart, and it's contrasted against his brother, who's a fully-assimilated vampire militant. In a convenient plot development, Edward runs across a small human resistance, led by Elvis (Willem Dafoe), an ex-vampire who's trying to figure out what happened to him. The resistance recruits Edward to help them in their "research," and they end up with something both promising and dangerous: a possible cure for the vampirism that's taken over humanity.
That premise should sound pretty interesting, but the subsequent plot summary may sound incredibly boring. That's actually a good starting point for understanding this movie… it fails on a lot of details and follow-through, but it's worth it for its execution of the core concept. However, you'll only get there if you can separate out the audience-pandering chaff. Keep reading and I'll try to get you primed.
Unfortunately, Daybreakers is a vampire flick and an action-horror movie, and it's weighed down by a lot of predictable tropes of those genres. The film pushes too hard to establish the vampireness of its vampires, including completely unnecessary flourishes like an "invisible in the mirror" scene and a repetition of the recent "explodes-when-staked" convention. Forgive me for being a geek for a moment, but even vampire movies can be self-consistent (see I Am Legend), and within the technocratic rationalism of this movie, these nods to old vampire folklore are just distracting.
More than these details, however, it's the structure of the film that makes it a confusing subject for evaluation. It begins as an atmospheric mood-piece, masterfully establishing a style and an emotional undercurrent. However, when the humans enter the picture, it actually breaks into two movies… first, a very conceptual piece about scarcity, addiction, degeneracy, and the viral power of both life and death. Second, a tired action flick with humanity as a scrappy underdog, fighting the good fight against an evil corporation.
The second movie is distracting, and ultimately, it might turn you off to the film in general. The things that dangle from the "human-mounted resistance" narrative line just don't work… the human headquarters doesn't fit with the tone of the film, a number of characters (the human guerilla soldiers, the radical vampire politician) aren't sufficiently developed or employed, and everything rests on a series of predictable twists and archetypes. This is a movie with a lot of crossbows and folky wisdom from Dafoe's character.
However, if you let this discourage you, you'll miss the first movie, which principally stars Ethan Hawke, and wherein Dafoe plays a more interesting role as a missing link between humans and bloodsuckers. This first movie is a conceptual triumph, armed with some harrowing moments: the first encounter with a Subsider (a degenerate vampire) is incredibly effective, and sets the tone for the rest of the film, which manages to fully evoke the loneliness of desperation and extinction.
This is Daybreakers: a movie with some dissociative identity disorder, interpolating a fascinating conceptual horror film with an unfortunately clumsy action movie. Maybe you can enjoy the bad parts; hopefully you can at least ignore and forgive them. Either way, I recommend you go see Daybreakers, because when you scrape away the gristle, you'll find a rare specimen: a truly conceptual, truly innovative vampire film.