Everything that's good about "Daybreakers" bursts forth in the scene wherein a hematologist played by Ethan Hawke undertakes an experiment and injects a not-quite-FDA-approved synthetic liquid into the veins of a fellow vampire, under the watchful eye of a pharmaceutical magnate played by Sam Neill.
From the scene's relative placement early in the story, and the familiarity of its premise, it's clear the operation will fail in the most spectacular way possible. The setup goes back a lot further than "Independence Day" or "The Thing" (either version), but the writers-directors of this picture, the German-born, Australian-raised duo known as the Spierig Brothers, toy with our expectations just so, delaying the payoff like expert sadists who know how to hit and run.
Like "District 9," another recent, inventive what-if? splatterfest, "Daybreakers" imagines a near future turned upside down by a single event. In 2019, a bat-borne vampire plague has reduced the human population by 95 percent and left the golden-eyed, fedora-sporting vampires in charge. But the global blood supply (nice metaphor for our oil dependency) is running low. When the vampires go hungry, they become ravenous, batlike "Class 4 blood-deprived" citizens, stalking the shadows and wreaking undead havoc.
In this world, commuters pay for shots of diluted human blood on the way to work, knocking 'em back like espressos. Humans are hunted, harvested and bled dry by the sinister drug company run by Neill, whose smile suggests a vampire at a blood bank. (Wait: He is a vampire at a blood bank!)
Hawke's character isn't sure where he belongs in this new ruling order; he has sworn off human blood, to the disgust of soldier brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) and feels not quite vampire, not quite his old self. A chance encounter with a group of renegade humans, led by Audrey (Claudia Karvan) - the best of many Australian performers on view here - leads Hawke's Edward Dalton to a breakthrough and a chance to become human again, with the aid of a hot-rodding, vampire-blasting survivalist played by Willem Dafoe.
Peter and Michael Spierig's earlier, campier horror outing, the zombie picture known as "Undead," was even bloodier than this one. The movie-makers are after bigger game here, and a subtler mixture of speculative nightmare and action film. It's too bad things sputter in the more conventional second half.
While the Spierigs are clever genre practitioners, their camera sense mainly sticks to the basics: huge close-ups suddenly interrupted by another "boo!" moment. With luck they'll discover more and better ways to energize their stories visually. And with luck, Hawke will deliver a lead performance that makes fools of people like me who too often wonder: Couldn't they get anyone besides Ethan Hawke?
MPAA rating: R (for strong bloody violence, language and brief nudity)
Cast: Ethan Hawke (Edward Dalton); Willem Dafoe (Lionel "Elvis" Cormac); Claudia Karvan (Audrey Bennett); Michael Dorman (Frankie Dalton); Sam Neill (Charles Bromley)
Credits: Written and directed by Peter Spierig and Michael Spierig. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:38