With rare exception, the fantasy genre is a very insular, repetitive genre that leans heavily on convention and familiarity over innovation and taking creative chances. Whether it be 1981’s Clash of the Titans, the more recent Lord of the Ring/Hobbit sagas, the rebooted Star Wars world or even the more modern ‘fantasy’ stories developed within the superhero genre there is still a sense of creative stagnation that makes these films averse to change (with the exception of the technical/cgi aspects which are phenomenal now). David Ayer’s Bright takes the magic out of middle earth and into modern day Los Angeles with a unique and raw vision of an alternative-Earth where orcs, elves and humans have co-existed for millennia.
Synopsis: “Set in a world where mystical creatures live side by side with humans. A human cop is forced to work with an Orc to find a weapon everyone is prepared to kill for.”
Ayer is one of the best modern directors when it comes to coaxing amazing performances out of actors, especially in genre pieces like Bright. For Smith and Edgerton, he once again excels are characterization in a way where most big films fall short. Ward (Will Smith) is a Murtaugh-esque beat cop who has an intense dislike for anything magical/magical creature related – even driving through the affluent Elven area of LA causes him anxiety and annoyance (more on this in the spoiler’d section). His animosity towards green-as-goose-shit Orc partner Jakoby comes from Ward’s suspicion that he let a suspect who shot Ward go because he was also an orc.
Edgerton is at his most likable as Jakoby, the affable, earnest, irony-free, un-Blooded (meaning he’s not truly accepted by Orcs) novice cop. Trust is in short supply between these partners and Ward’s question of “Are you a cop first or an orc first?” while officers are aggressively subduing an orc suspect brings that bubbling to the surface. What makes Smith’s portrayal of Ward stand out is that in a rare case for Smith as an actor, he’s not supposed to be liked. Not only is he hated by the gangs he polices, but his own department finds him completely intolerable (as evidenced by literally no one else but Jakoby wanting to ride with him). Both he and Jakoby understand the isolation that comes with not being accepted by your brethren, they just deal with it differently.
What makes Ayer’s work so refreshing when it comes to characterization is he doesn’t beat you over the head with information. Much like creating a dream in Inception, he gives you just enough to get you started and then lets any smart viewer fill in the rest. While this may be frustrating to some who are more accustomed to the modern “explain every thing with its own movie” culture we live in, as a standalone movie it is a much-appreciated sense of self-contained storytelling. In a staple of Ayer film-making, it is through harsh times that people’s true nature comes out. When the proverbial shit hits the fan, Jakoby and Ward see that they can count on one another despite their animosity. The only underdeveloped character for my taste was Noomi Rapace’s evil elf, Leilah. Keeping a sense of mystery about her until the very end added a nice Terminator-like sense to her unrelenting aggression, but because Rapace’s such a dynamic presence, it would have been nice to see more of her throughout.
The fantasy genre gets lost in its own sense of “epic-ness” more often than not making it difficult for new fans to appreciate the thematic beauty it can provide. With Bright, Ayer approaches a familiar concept (an apocalyptically powerful weapon falling into the wrong hands) from a more microcosmic POV. The magic wand is tethered to its Bright, creating a barrier that Jakoby and Ward cannot escape from. As such, Ayer side-steps the usual conventions/pitfalls of the fantasy genre by bottling the epic-ness into a few city blocks. By distilling such abstract, usually impenetrable to new audiences, concepts into a small area with more immediate ramifications, it creates a smoother inroad for people unfamiliar with the fantasy genre. He also accomplishes this via deft world-building that quickly drops the viewer right into the shit-end of the stick that is this magical world. Brevity is a virtue all but lost on modern fantasy audiences who need to have backstory, characters and plot pre-chewed and spat into their mouth baby-bird style, but Bright is able to do more with a few lines of dialogue than most films can do with three prequels.
Then there’s the action – which, no surprise, is mostly practical and conveys a great deal of emotion and tension with much smaller set pieces than its cinematic contemporaries. Just like with the overall story, the action feels more intimate and intense than if it were a generic shot of two hordes of warriors smashing into each other. The blending of magical and conventional action sequences comes across seamlessly and is only utilized to truly emphasize the dangerous and destructive nature of the enemy. The pacing of the action with characterization and exposition is done with an increasing velocity that truly puts the audience in the same time and space crunch that the protagonists are in. They don’t have a night to sleep on stuff or the luxury of time to let things sink in – this all takes place in one night, over the course of a few hours and the pacing keeps the momentum up to capture that feeling.
While most people will likely draw comparisons to Lord of the Rings because there are orcs and elves in the film (yet another example of just how insular and hive-bound the fantasy genre has become), Bright actually shares more DNA with films like Dredd (2012), The Warriors or Die Hard. While everyone is so intensely focused on the magical elements (which look awesome integrated with a wry sense of gritty realism into modern day LA), the real story lies in the claustrophobic isolation of being cut off from help and fighting to survive the night.
BRIGHT is available on Netflix now – check it out and then follow us on Twitter @official_FAN – if you’re still reading just know, after this sentence we’re getting into spoiler territory with the film, so….you’ve been warned.
As previously mentioned, Ward has an intense aversion to anything magical which comes into play later in the film. Bright plays with the concepts of fate and destiny as introduced by the seemingly crazy member of the Shield of Light early on. They are an ancient organization who have been tracking the lines of fate seemingly since time began and we find out that they know Jakoby and Ward’s role in what transpires during Bright. What we find out at the end of the film (LAST CHANCE, SPOILERS) is that Ward is a Bright (a one-in-a-million-human who can use a magic wand – even his name “ward” is an archaic term for guard/protector).
Both him and Jakoby realize late in the film that they are in the middle of a prophecy unfolding. Prophecies are one of the fun, if hokey, things about the fantasy genre that help to define the epic nature of it all. We’re all a part of something bigger, something more cosmic – whether we’re a beat cop or the smallest hobbit. Usually in fantasy films the prophecy is foretold right from the start and then the audience watches it play out, happily along for the ride. With Bright, we don’t realize we’re in a prophecy until we’re dead center in the middle of it! That’s a big part of the charm of Bright. It takes a very idealized, mystical concept like an ancient prophecy and makes it feel like a really shitty night on the job that turns into something much, much more. That microcosmic storytellling is something the increasingly tepid fantasy genre could do with a bit more.