Netflix has been churning out TV shows and movies for a while now, but Bright is their first full-throttle blockbuster. Directed by Suicide Squad’s David Ayer from a script by Max Landis, Bright is a fantasy-infused cop drama set in a racially charged world. Los Angeles is co-populated by humans and magical creatures in a multi-tiered society that sees elves living luxuriously while orcs work in the streets and form gangs for protection. An interesting world with strong potential, the film is ultimately let down by a lackluster story and head-smacking dialogue like “I think we might be in a prophecy.”
At the center of Bright is police officer Daryl Ward (Smith) and his partner, the first-ever orc policeman, Nick Jakoby, as they try to stop a magical wand from getting in the wrong hands. Played by Joel Edgerton, Jakoby is an interesting character as he has to deal with being despised by other orcs and feared by humans as he struggles to do the right thing. Put on the squad as part of the orcish diversity program, his position with the LAPD is a symbol to the world that times are changing. Not everyone is happy about this though and plots sprout up around the force to try to get him removed. Even his own partner doesn’t trust him at the beginning of Bright, but that doesn’t stop Jakoby from constantly trying to be the best cop he can. Despite his best intentions, everyone still looks down on him and his orcish blood due to a inter-species war that took place over 2000 years ago.
Luckily Will Smith is still extremely charismatic because the chemistry between him and Edgerton holds Bright together. The confident and experienced Ward is balanced by Jakoby, a bumbling rookie who says things like “they don’t teach that in the academy” when he surprises himself. From a personality perspective, the two of them couldn’t be more different, and Smith even complains that his partner somehow has the ability to make a shootout feel awkward. Their relationship evolves throughout the movie form a begrudging partnership towards mutual respect as they watch each other’s backs on this action-packed night. Charisma aside, Smith turns in a luke-warm performance that feels like he is cruising on auto-pilot instead of giving it his all. He’s entertaining in Bright, but it’s because he relies on his no-nonsense Will Smith shtick rather than bring anything new to the character.
What holds Bright back the most is the fact that the world is far more interesting than the story. Throughout the film, there are allusions to an ancient conflict between all the species and a so-called Dark Lord (hello, Harry Potter), but nothing in the present day is nearly as interesting. Magical creatures live alongside humans and there’s even a special unit of federal agents who hunt down magical artifacts and people who can control magic, brights, but the movie never feels engaging; it just happens. The film starts with a cool but sloppily shot montage of graffiti across town that displays how society is divided and who is prejudiced against who, an idea that is far more interesting than defending a weapon from the wrong hands. There’s even one shot of the city that shows a dragon flying above the skyline, but they’re never directly referenced or brought into the story. If dragons exist near Los Angeles, there’s probably an interesting history of domestication or conflict between dragons and humans that is far-more intriguing than what Landis focuses on.
Like a lot of blockbusters, Bright is held together by a MacGuffin, but unlike mother boxes or infinity stones, this one is kind of interesting and fits within the larger context of the movie’s world. Magic wands can give certain people magical powers, but for anyone who isn’t a bright they will blow up immediately upon touching it. The ability to grant wishes and fix every aspect of one’s life isn’t something that just appeals to the bad guys though as we see various groups go a little stir crazy over the wand. Like the ring of power from Lord of the Rings, everyone selfishly sees what it can do for themselves instead of recognizing how dangerous it is. This blind desire results in everyone from elves to cholo gangsters tearing up the city on their single-minded mission to find the wand and harness its power.
From a technical standpoint, Bright looks fine. The lighting is good and the pyrotechnics were impressive, but the cinematography and directing is boring. Despite the action-packed premise, the camera stays relatively motionless throughout the film and makes everything seem still. While this works for some of the standard conversation scenes, the fights feel muffled in comparison to films with larger budgets (Bright was made for “just” $90 million). Editing was also a big problem for Bright and it took away from the impact of the various fight scenes. Instead of giving the audience enough time to truly perceive what’s happening on screen, the film constantly cuts back and forth, resulting in a jarring feeling that pushes the action towards incomprehensible territory.
In a world of never-ending franchises, it feels good to watch a movie that is a stand-alone film based on an original idea. With that said, it’s a good thing this movie will be on Netflix because it would likely bomb in theaters. Bright didn’t have to worry about earning a PG-13 score from the MPAA to appeal to wider audiences, which allowed Ayer to include more visceral violence and rough language to give this fantasy story a sense of gritty realism the general audience might not have appreciated. There are certainly things for people to enjoy in Bright, and I expect it to quickly generate a fan-following, but it could have been so much more.
More than anything else, Bright just makes me excited to see Kenneth Branagh’s take on Artemis Fowl because humans and magical creatures sharing a modern world is a great story device. Bright has heart, humor, some decent action, and a fun cameo from the Joe Rogan podcast. So, if you have an open night, turn off The Great British Bake Off and boot up Bright, because you have literally nothing to lose.
Final Score: 5/10