Before I get to the review, I’m going to share some related personal information, because it may influence my criticism in ways that I can’t recognize. I always try to be as unbiased as possible in my reviews. Even when I don’t like a particular film, I make it a point to understand who the film was made for and what the film was trying to achieve, and then I review based on those factors. In this case, the film hits a little too close to home, and I don’t know if I’m compensating enough for that.
When I decided to pursue screenwriting back in 2004, the first script I wrote was about a modern-day fantasy world where all of the races from Dungeons & Dragons coexisted ina setting that was very similar to present day America except heavily colored by fantasy elements. I refined the screenplay over the years, always giving it another round of polishing and updating every time I passed it into the hands of an industry contact. I even submitted it to some screenwriting contests and placed as a Top 10 Finalist in one of them recently. Unfortunately, none of those opportunities every panned out. So you can imagine how charmed and surprised I was to discover that Bright was coming out with the same general concept.
My first – and strongest – reaction was that I wanted Bright to fail. I wanted my film to be the movie that contemporary audiences recognized as having melded fantasy with everyday reality. I had worked so hard on the script, and it had been my impetus for almost everything I did related to the entertainment industry from starting this site to all the years I spent covering Hollywood, attending industry parties, and buying dinner for anyone with some influence. To see someone else’s similar concept come to life instead of mine was heartbreaking.
After accepting that Bright was going to become a thing, I embraced it. In fact, I now wanted it to do well because I wanted to have something to point at as a success story for my own film. I felt similarly when The Lord of the Rings films came out and reestablished a presence of high fantasy concepts in the minds of moviegoers.
However, when I wrote pitches for my film to managers and executives, I tried citing Bright as a similar film to save time in explaining the world. I thought I was being clever by referencing a movie that was receiving a lot of press. After rejecting me, one executive wrote back:
“The consensus amongst Hollywood execs, BTW, is that BRIGHT is not strong, and only Netflix could make it, because people wouldnt (sic) show up to see it in a theater.”
Ugh. That little nugget of wisdom tossed over the high walls of Hollywood crushed my hopes that Bright would be a good film. It colored how I viewed the trailers, which now had a sheen of made-for-TV to them. Finally, the recent articles casting Bright as the worst film of 2017 and others instructing viewers not to watch it prepared me for the worst.
So, with coffee in hand, I settled in for an evening of awfulness the could only be rivaled by Manos: The Hands of Fate. But it never came. In fact, I really enjoyed watching Bright. In many ways, it’s the realization of my own film except, perhaps, not as grandiose as my vision. But beyond my personal attachments, it’s also just a well-made film that manages to make audiences see past the fantasy and experience the prototypical buddy-cop story that’s engrossing in its own right. Now, onto the review.
In this reimagining of present day America, the fantasy races that we’re all familiar with, like elves, orcs, humans, and even centaurs, live in Los Angeles going about their daily lives. However, there is a definite hierarchy to the races, with orcs being on the lower rungs of society, making up most of the menial labor and crime element while the elves essentially live in their version of Beverly Hills and maintain all of the seats of power. The humans are somewhere in the middle.
The story revolves around Police Officer Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and his new partner Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), who is also an orc and the first of his kind to wear the badge. After responding to a disturbance in a sketchy part of town, the two officers discover a runaway elf (Lucy Fry) in possession of a magic wand, which is a rare magical artifact of unimaginable and limitless power that only very select few can wield. Those that can are known as Brights. Unfortunately, everyone in town wants the wand and are willing to kill for it.
The anti-hype for Bright is way overblown, but I can also understand why some people won’t like it. Any time a story deals with magic, if rules aren’t established early, then magic can feel like a “too convenient” way to solve difficult situations. The myth-building also feels a little hokey with characters referencing the return of a dark lord and being part of secret resistance groups that sound like bad clan names from online role-playing games.
Bright wants to be more than just a concept film; it’s trying to tell a much larger story full of spectacle and wonder, which is evidenced by all of the references to that larger story in the dialog and ancillary visuals. Unfortunately, there isn’t much content that covers the history of the world as understood within the film. So when an orc talks about how his race made the wrong decision 2000 years ago, it’s not meaningful to the audience in any emotional way. Also, the humans don’t behave as though the fantasy races have always been in their lives. Instead, the world of Bright feels more like the world of Alien Nation, where a foreign population has just recently become fully integrated into human society with the human population still trying to cope. Perhaps another draft or a longer runtime could have shored up some of these weak points. A bigger budget might have also helped secure more filming locations.
The biggest obstacle that Bright places in front of audiences is that it immediately presents a high hurdle for viewers to overcome in order to enjoy the film: They either immediately accept modern day fantasy races or they don’t. It’s one thing to present fantasy races as space aliens ala Star Trek with elvish Vulcans and orcish Klingons. That concept feels removed enough that audiences can accept it without many questions. It’s another thing to present fantasy races as getting some coffee at your local Starbucks. Suddenly, the mind is flooded with thoughts around logistics and how history might be reshaped with dragons still flying in the sky and magic being a real force in the world. That’s exactly what Bright tries to display in a very nonchalant manner. If audiences can accept that, then they’re going to have a good time. If not, then they write articles commanding others not watch the film.
There was a moment early on that erased my skepticism. A man who looked homeless stood in the middle of an intersection babbling nonsense while wielding a sword. Daryl and Nick arrived to meet the sheriff on site to resolve the situation. They watched the homeless man apathetically and engaged in small talk with each other before getting to work. For a moment, the film captured the mundanity of everyday absurdity that every cop experiences on a long enough timeline and coupled it with the occupational numbness that eventually affects any profession. Suddenly, the fantasy aspect of the film felt secondary. I was free to enjoy the movie.
The entire cast pulls its weight, though some actors offer more than others. Will Smith plays Will Smith as a cop, but somehow I found him less annoying than I typically do. He seems more vulnerable here, and I think this is the most beat-up he’s looked in a film. Joel Edgerton steals the show, striking a great balance between rookie cop and foreigner trying to fit in with the dominant population. His character’s story is every immigrant’s story, and he conveys it well. Noomi Rapace is wasted here as a determined and vicious villain with few lines, but she never ceases to impress with her commitment to even this small role.
There’s a lot to like about Bright. Not only does it have a strong overarching plot about protecting a target to help stop a great evil, but it also has an equally compelling subplot that surrounds racism and corruption behind powerful institutional forces. The economy employed by the filmmakers is also fascinating. The opening credits are spent looking at graffiti which detail current race relations without needing expositional dialog, flashbacks, or some other contrivance to orient viewers. Most importantly, Bright succeeds with its core concept. The fantasy world truly felt integrated into modern society. Would I have felt fully satisfied seeing in a theater? Probably not. So in that sense, the executive above was right: Bright wasn’t strong enough for a theatrical release. On the other hand, I’ve seen worse films in the theater too. Make of that what you will.
Ultimately, Bright feels prototypical in the way that it mashes up two genres. There’s nothing offensive about it in a storytelling manner, which is why the negative campaigning against it seemed weird. I imagined that there were political machinations behind the scenes as studios maneuvered to somehow slow down Netflix’s momentum. However, I recently discovered that writer Max Landis is being accused of sexual assault. In the current climate of Hollywood, an accusation is as good as a conviction. Perhaps the attacks on Bright are a way to attack Landis via his career.
In any event, if you’re a Netflix subscriber, then give Bright a chance. It’s pretty good.