How Capital Turns People into ‘Consuming’ Vampires: An Essay on Daybreakers

June 8, 2010

By G Sampath

Every once in a while there comes a commercial pot-boiler of a film that knocks you cold with its understanding of contemporary politics. It reminds you that filmmaking is not only about camera angles and cinematography and script and direction and acting and special effects and edge-of-the-seat thrills. It reminds you that cinema is also, nay, essentially, about something that camera-enslaved filmmakers tend to forget: thought, and politics.

On the one hand, you have Hurt Locker, a film based on the US occupation of Iraq that deliberately ignores why the US is in Iraq and what it is doing there: zero politics, and all cinema, we’re told. We all know (but won’t admit it) what kind of politics ‘no politics’ means. And on the other hand you have a film, a sci-fi Vampire film, Daybreakers, which stays true to the genre of vampire thrillers and is yet a scathing commentary on the world we are living in. A world where the value attached to the life of a human being is by no means absolute, and is contingent on and directly proportional to the said human being’s ability to act as a consumer.

Daybreakers, which was released in India last week, is set in 2019. By then, the world has been taken over by vampires, or rather, by humans who have been ‘turned’ into vampires. In this vampire-dominated world, humans are captured and farmed for their blood in giant industrial labs run by biotech MNCs. Human blood, like coffee, is a commodity served in vending machines in kiosks. But humans have been hunted to the point of extinction, and the companies that supply blood to the global vampire population are running out of human stock. So R&D is summoned to come up with a solution: a blood substitute.

Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is a vampire haematologist working with Bromley Marks Laboratories, a Monsanto-like giant biotech MNC. His brief is to come up with a blood substitute. Now, coming up with a blood substitute can mean two things: one, it will enable the entire vampire population (ex-humans) to survive. But it will also mean that, since human blood will no longer be needed, it wouldn’t matter if humans became extinct.

The philosophical, existential and political potentialities of this plot’s premise are too diverse and rich to be explored in full here, but the directors, Michael and Peter Spierig, unlike Kathryn Bigelow, do not disappoint. The film, shot beautifully, with haunting doomsday atmospherics, surpasses your expectations of a regular vampire flick and soars into a sublime allegory of what it means to be human in a post-industrial capitalist society.

The most widely needed commodity in vampire society, a fundamental vampire right, if you like, is human blood. And it is increasingly in short supply. Substitute your favourite resource instead of blood — Oil? Water? Food? Human-friendly climate? — and every piece of the parallelism fits into place. Speculators make a killing on blood futures. Rich investors withdraw their private blood deposits from human blood farms. And when the situation becomes so bad that blood prices soar and the country is left with less than a month’s supply of blood, it is the poorest vampires who are most affected.

Blood riots ensue and starving vampires who ‘subside’ into suppurating bat-like mutants and terrorise peaceable middle-class vampires are killed off in the way ‘terrorists’ should be. Soon, the army is called out into the streets to wage (what else?) the war against terror, and control (kill) the working class vampires, even as the richer vampires, whose own blood stocks are dwindling, watch in horror from behind glass windows.

The film is a brilliant thought experiment that poses a simple question: what happens when we indiscriminately attempt to replace nature or natural products with man-made ones. For the vampire, that most basic element of nature, sunlight, is fatal. And for us non-vampires living in 2010, that most basic element of nature, air, is fatal too, in our cities. So is most of the food that we get in malls, supermarkets and restaurants — super-rich in pesticides and processed carcinogens.

We live in an age whose biggest affliction is technophilia. For any human problem, we don’t look for the obvious, human answers. We look to technology for the answer, which always brings with it another set of problems, whose solutions will then fund another cycle of GDP growth. But what if there are answers to our problems that will not, by definition, yield returns on investment or generate wealth or add to the GDP? Do we then summarily dismiss all such solutions?

What is astonishing is that, for a mass market commercial film, Daybreakers, poses all these questions, and indeed, comes up with rational answers. In a chilling scene, Dalton tells his employer Charles Bromley (played by Sam Neill) that he has finally found a cure that will end the vampires’ need for human blood. But Bromley, whose company is the biggest player in the multi-trillion-dollar blood market, turns him down. “I don’t want a cure,” he says. “What I want is repeat business. And for that I need a blood substitute that we can market.” And which vampires will need to keep buying.

Another exquisite parallel is the existential one — what makes a vampire a vampire and a human a human? This dilemma is played out in the sub-plot involving Dalton’s younger brother Frankie Dalton (played by Michael Dorman). Frankie is torn between loyalty to the vampire community, which he serves as a soldier hunting humans, and love for his brother, who despite being a vampire still displays disturbing vestiges of humanity.

The originality of the film lies in the way it reinvents the vampire as metaphor for capital. The moment you become a vampire, not only do you cease to be human, you prey upon other humans, and as you do so, you convert them into vampires too, till everyone in society has to become a vampire in order to stay alive. Only, after you become a vampire, you are no longer alive but dead — not to yourself, but to those who are still human, and to your own humanity. So you hunt out the remaining humans, whom you cannot but hate, for having still retained their humanity when you have lost yours.

The parallel between capital and vampire is closer than it would appear. A vampire sucks the life out of any human it comes in contact with, and turns it into a version of itself. This is exactly how capital works: capital, when it takes over human society, recreates humans in its own image, and as servants of capital, known more popularly as the ‘consumer’.

Capital, like vampires, is immortal. It cannot die, it feeds on humans and human labour, to survive and flourish. Humans die. But when humans become vampires aka capital, they turn into corporations and identify their own interests, their own identity, and their own values with that of the corporation. They turn hostile to humans, to their own humanity. By this analogy, any human who puts the welfare of capital before the welfare of humans, is a vampire. And he or she does so because he or she desires the immortality of capital and the salvation of profit more than the currency of humaneness, a currency which cannot but be devalued in a vampire-run economy.

Nowhere is the attack on humans more apparent than in our own times, where human rights campaigners are enemies of the state, those fighting for the poor are enemies of the state, and those who don’t want to become vampires and wish to steer clear of the capitalist system are enemies of the state.

There are those who serve human beings, the human-lovers, like Dalton. And there are those who serve non-human things — foremost of these being capital, and then state, religion, party, and so on. The second category of humans, like Dalton’s brother Frankie, serving non-human entities, are the ones who prey upon humans, and, like the repressed unconscious, they surface in our pop culture as the mythology of vampires.

Completing the allegorical arc is the climax of the film, where, significantly, the ‘solution’ which Edward finally manages to discover (unlike in Avatar) requires neither capital nor the violence of technology but is, significantly, based on a return to nature, to humanity.

The blood (can’t be helped in a vampire movie) and gore notwithstanding, Daybreakers is a thought-provoking yet incredibly entertaining cinematic parable about what it is that makes us human. And unlike other Hollywood blockbusters that pretend to have their heart in the right place, like Avatar, it doesn’t flinch from presenting unpalatable truths about the kind of society we are moving towards.

G Sampath is a journalist based in Mumbai

5 Comments »

5 Responses to “How Capital Turns People into ‘Consuming’ Vampires: An Essay on Daybreakers

  1. Gyani Says:
    June 9th, 2010 at 13:17

    Excellent review! I’ll definitely see this movie. Nice analogy!

  2. mcgomze Says:
    June 10th, 2010 at 03:19

    i like the life style of vampire where we feel presence of humans for need of vampire.

    review is so minute and i think it should be many times better than the movie. excellent is not the word to describe the review. let me come back to you after watching the movie soon.

  3. Taki Says:
    June 10th, 2010 at 06:00

    Thanks for an excellent essay.

  4. Lukman Says:
    March 25th, 2011 at 12:57

    I had never heard of this movie but the review will motivate me to see it. I was looking for narratives on “human capital” because of how the phrase actually dehumanizes people by equating us with capital. Most everything that came up on Google had to do with how to improve human capital, making people more utilitarian. I’m glad I found the review!

  5. Kellie Says:
    May 14th, 2014 at 13:31

    This is such an in-depth analysis of the film and a great read :)

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