When a movie opens with a production card that says “Trigger Warning Entertainment”, that’s never a good sign. Netflix’s new fantasy crime thriller Bright, written by Max Landis and directed by Suicide Squad’s David Ayer, is a film that isn’t shy about how thought-provoking and boundary-shattering it believes it is. In the middle of an entertainment era that’s filled with remakes, sequels, and shared universes, I’m always glad to see creators experimenting with fresh and weird concepts.
But original ideas still need well-structured stories, appealing characters, and a certain degree of exploration into its themes. And sadly, that’s where Bright comes up short.
The world of Bright feels like a mash-up of Alien Nation and Lethal Weapon, with plot elements that gave me shades of Zootopia and Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t look too different from the real modern Los Angeles, except with a myriad of fantasy creatures- orc street gangs, snobbish high society elves in designer clothes, and feral fairies that constantly get caught in bug zappers. “Fairy lives don’t matter today”, declares police officer Daryl Ward (Will Smith) as he beats one to death with his broom, which didn’t do much to endear me to him as a protagonist. It’s all about first impressions, dude.
Said creatures are part of a society where humans are in the middle of a social order, above orcs but below the elves. Ward’s been partnered with an orc rookie named Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton, the first of his kind to become an officer. While the two are working a night shift, they stumble onto a magic wand that works like Tolkien’s One Ring in how it draws the interest everyone around it.
In Bright’s LA, that means corrupt cops (including Margaret Cho, who’s actually pretty impressive in a villain role) and just about every powerful gang in the city- most notably the Inferni, a group of elves led by Noomi Rapace who want to use the wand to resurrect an ancient evil entity. With the help of a young elven girl named Tikka (Lucy Fry), the two officers try to put aside their differences and keep the wand out the wrong hands.
Ayer mentioned in an interview that this universe is far richer than the film implies- “I think audiences are smarter than they’re given credit for….it’s OK to let them use their intuition and it’s OK to leave the audience a little hungry and not explain everything.” Perhaps, but for a film with a $90 million-plus budget, one would have imagined something more visually interesting than just the freaks coming out at night.
I admire the use of practical effects in its action scenes, but for a film titled Bright, it’s a very dark, muddy and unappealing looking universe (and I’m not talking about the kind of artful dirtiness Mudbound had).
Whatever worldbuilding and character development there is in Bright feels very rushed. The script is impatient and constantly cuts back to out-of-nowhere shootouts, so the narrative often feels scattered all over the floor. What’s worse, the allegories with its fantasy characters come off very surface-level and/or underdeveloped. The orcs- a warlike, brutish species who are targeted by the LAPD- are obviously a stand-in for people of color, which has a ton of bad implications there alone.
Performance-wise it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but it’s not that great either. Edgerton is appealing and easy to root for as Jacoby, though it’s helped by the fact he’s the one character that’s written to be remotely likable. Will Smith (who I’m normally a big fan of) feels as if he’s running through his usual motions, and he seems to be going out of his way to keep any sense of warmth hidden. “Are you a cop first or an orc first?”, he coldly asks Jacoby while an Orc is attacked by officers in the middle of the street. Like, what? If you’re trying to encourage the idea we should all get along, you’ve got a bleak way of showing it.
When Bright was first announced, I was instantly looking forward to it. Now that it’s arrived, my feelings are…is this it? This movie apparently assumes that it only needs to exist to be groundbreaking, but a great movie needs more than that. Is it the complete dumpster fire than some critics are claiming it to be? I’d encourage you to maybe give it a shot, and decide for yourself how you feel about it. Me, I was personally let down by the execution of what I think is a fascinating concept.
At least the soundtrack is pretty good. Logic and Rag ‘n Bone Man’s “Broken People” is a stirring opening song, Migos’ “Danger” is downright epic, and Lil Uzi Vert and Steve Aoki’s “Smoke My Dope” is an earworm. But the social allegories felt very weak, the climax used too many cheap “because magic!” elements, and despite some decent performances (Edgerton and Smith don’t really develop any chemistry until the last third of the movie), the characters just weren’t appealing enough to win me over. My thumbs are leaning down on this one.