I’m confident that I attended a critics’ screening of a movie called Bright, produced by Netflix and starring Will Smith. I definitely sat facing the front of the room, watching it project onto a big screen. My seat rattled a little during some of the gunfire and explosions. I took a bunch of notes.
But I’ll be damned if I have any idea what this movie is on about, or why. Halfway through, I broke one of my cardinal moviegoing rules — “never talk” — by leaning over to ask a colleague if the movie was supposed to be making sense by now. He winced. After the screening, I repeated the inquiry to a half-dozen fellow critics; everyone seemed a little stunned by the experience.
Bright is a “gritty” cop film with orcs and elves thrown into the mix, though it might be a fantasy film onto which Training Day has somehow imposed itself. And while there’s nothing wrong with the idea of a genre mashup — Get Out is one, and so is Blade Runner — if you want to make a successful one, you do actually have to do something interesting with the two genres you’re combining, something that illuminates them both.
Given that both the police and fantasy realms offer rich opportunities to explore things like violence and racism and pluralism and courage, it’s frustrating to notice the seeds of an interesting movie everywhere in Bright. But it simply doesn’t stay focused on any one of them long enough for its potential to pay off, and it wears its social consciousness like decoration. Stuffing ripped-off mythical creatures into a formulaic police flick and casting Will Smith may get people to add the movie to their Netflix queue — the streaming service funded the movie and is distributing it, in a bid to prove that it can disrupt the big studios with a blockbuster that it releases directly into people’s living rooms. But that doesn’t make it any good.
In the world of Bright, orcs and elves coexist with humans
Bright in its simplest form is a buddy cop movie. It leans comic and dramatic by turns, but at its core it wants to be a comedy, centering on two LAPD officers who are stuck with one another: a human named Ward (Will Smith) and an orc named Jakoby (Joel Edgerton, utterly unrecognizable under very heavy prosthetics).
Yes, an orc. Bright exists in a universe very like ours, a place where racism and gun violence and police brutality all exist, but where there was some kind of vague battle a few thousand years ago between humans, orcs, and elves — and then when it ended, everyone somehow wound up living alongside one another. The elves are wealthy and magical, and seem to have all had copious plastic surgery; the humans are just humans; the orcs are generally hated, and relegated to the ghetto.
There is some kind of racial metaphor aching to get out here, but it’s either incredibly dumb or kind of evil — particularly because Jakoby is the first orc to be admitted to the LAPD (which nevertheless polices the whole city and all three species) and gives speeches about how orcs, who in days past chose the “wrong side,” need to make better choices now.
That Bright hurls out some kind of racial politics grenade and then runs away without tending to the explosion — in a movie about the LAPD, no less — should not be all that surprising; if you’ve watched the trailer, you know that “Fairy lives don’t matter today” is an actual line that Will Smith says, out loud. Still, the feint toward wokeness without any follow-up, or apparently any actual cognitive energy, feels both obscenely performative and too stupid to deal with.
The primary plot of the movie kicks off when Ward and Jakoby stumble into an especially tricky situation with an elf and an ancient wand that imparts great power to the bearer. The hitch, as far as I can tell, is that almost nobody can handle the wand. To do so, one has to be a “bright,” and very few humans are brights. But the wand is in high demand nonetheless, and Ward and Jakoby spend the night running around with it and an elf named Tikka (Lucy Fry), whose very powerful elf-sisters want her and the wand back, especially one named Leilah (Noomi Rapace).
Bright squanders every bit of its potential
Look, I know that all sounds pretty interesting. And it certainly could have been, because it’s a pretty terrific concept: Transplant the racial tensions that have always existed in movies about cops — and particularly about the LAPD — into a slightly unfamiliar world that helps emphasize the social commentary and make us think.
Nope. Bright, with a screenplay by Victor Frankenstein and Chronicle scribe Max Landis, doesn’t even come close to saying anything meaningful. Its premise is great, but on the narrative and character level, everything falls to pieces. The most interesting mythologies (about the origins of the elves and the orcs and the whole system they’ve set up) are dashed off in quick montages, while the audience is forced to endure several ponderous, expositional stretches with the cops about how Humans and Elves Don’t Trust Each Other and Thus We’re Not Really Friends. In one scene, a bit of graffiti on the bathroom wall reads:
I love orcs
And that’s about as subtle as Bright can bring itself to be about its aims, while also somehow saying nothing at all. It’s the rare case of a movie that should have either been much more or much less ambitious than it is; at the very least, it definitely, definitely should have gone through a few more rounds of revisions.
In the end, Bright pulls off the uncommon (and not at all admirable) hat trick of being confusing, boring, and vaguely insulting about the matters it wants to appear smart on. The movie is a case of reading the room very wrongly, then slapping a lot of violence and muddled mythology on top as a means of distraction. It’s probably well suited for its straight-to-Netflix distribution, because watching it in the comfort of your own living room home affords you the option to check your phone or get up for another drink at your leisure. But it’s not a blockbuster in any significant sense of the word. It’s just a big waste of everyone’s time.
With that said, I should warn you: A sequel is already on the way.
Bright will open in limited theaters and release on Netflix on December 22.