Bright, Netflix’s feature film from Suicide Squad director David Ayer and American Ultra writer Max Landis released on December 22nd and we finally had a chance to check it out. With a $90 million budget, it was to be Netflix’s most expensive outing to date for a feature. Billed as a “contemporary cop thriller, but with fantastical elements,” it succeeds at one of those aspects but falls utterly flat at the other.
The premise for the film’s world is that it’s set in 2017, but on an alternate Earth. On that Earth, there are a range of races: Human, Orc, Dwarf, Goblin, Panahu, Giant, Ogre, Brezzik (Lizardmen), Elf, and Centaur. About 2,000 years ago the Dark Lord waged war with the races, and the Orcs sided with the Dark Lord, who was ultimately defeated. The Orcs have since been relegated to lowest-tier status and though they seem to be working to gain their way back into general society, old prejudices die hard.
We have a human cop, Daryl Ward (played by Will Smith) who is unimpressed with his new partner, a forced diversity-hire orc, Nick Jakoby (played by Joel Edgerton). The rest of the police force is all human and lose no opportunity to give Daryl crap for his partner. Nick gets equal crap from both the humans as well as the orcs who consider Nick a suck-up and a disgrace to his tribe. There’s two main thematic arcs to the film. The leading one is the subtle as a jackhammer “racial harassment is bad” and “people who act cruelly to whichever type of person (via race, religion, or sex) is being oppressed are jerks.” Before long the film tires of beating that horse to death and shifts over to a standard “the good cops have something that the bad guys and their corrupt cop sidekicks want.”
Neither of the two threads are original or inspired. Alien Nation did the racial commentary far better both in it’s original feature film version as well as it’s later television series. The cops on the run story is probably one of the most overdone trope in the genre, second only to cop who doesn’t like/want his junior partner.
What’s most frustrating about the film is that its underling mythos could make for a pretty compelling film or series. The elves have largely become a separate and aloof class of society which represents most of the world’s wealth (reaffirming that subtlety is not one of the film’s strengths).
After the 2,000-year hiatus, there are rumblings of the Dark Lord’s return, which will be accomplished when three magic wands are brought together. Overall wands in this universe are unbelievably powerful (implied to be akin to an infinity-stone level), and they cannot even be touched by most individuals. People who can handle a wand are called “Brights”. Unfortunately the only way to find out if you are one or not is to grab onto a wand; if you’re not a Bright, you immediately explode in a shower of CGI effects. Elven Brights are rare but not unheard of, however human Brights are almost non-existent (it’s expressed that fewer than 1 in 1,000,000 humans can wield a wand).
That general world and the struggle to find the wands and play keep-away from the bad guys would make for a compelling enough story. Unfortunately Landis’ writing flows more like it was written by a World of Warcraft fan who was fond of watching Training Day rather than the son of a highly respected and capable writer and director. The attempts to make a solid statement piece on the injustices of race both in society and around police departments in particular are so ham-fisted as to lose their effectiveness and edge towards parody. The performances are fine, though it’ll still be a few films before we can fully forgive Smith and move past After Earth.
It’s not the worst film you’ll see all year, and any comparisons to that low bar are made by people who have clearly forgotten the painful experiences that was The Emoji Movie, or Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween. Instead it’s just lackluster and disappointing; there’s nothing so frustrating is seeing a good concept become wasted by a sub-par writer.
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