Overview: In an alternate present, Officer Ward, a human cop, returns to work after recovering from a gunshot wound inflicted by an orc citizen. His partner Jakoby, also an orc, faces a certain amount of prejudice from the other police officers and from Ward himself, but this becomes a secondary concern as the pair stumble into an imbroglio involving a traitorous elf, a magic wand, a street gang, an orc crime syndicate, and goodness knows what else. Netflix; 2017; Not rated; 118 minutes.
Uh…: In Bright, writer Max Landis and director David Ayer team up to bring us something weird, unique, brutal, quirky, and not remotely appealing. I confess myself disappointed. As a fan of Landis’s work on Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, I went in expecting something definitely odd, but also fun. Unfortunately, Bright is only definitely odd, and never fun. The plot is tortuous. Jokes fall flat. The writing is base, with gratuitous obscenities that don’t quite disguise the weak dialogue and shaky plot. A well placed “fuck” can go a long way, but lines like “some fucked up shit went down tonight” belong in a 19 year-old frat boy’s mouth, and not on screen.
This film has everything!: Buddy cops, street gangs, elves, car chases, explosions, gratuitous violence, explosions, chain whipping, that thing where a magical person (called a “Bright”) strings someone up by their own intestines in such an aesthetically appealing way that you don’t realize they’re disemboweled, orcs… In fact, the lore behind this film is so elaborate that it spends most of the first half getting you acquainted with the world in between fancifully choreographed fight scenes and car chases. There was a war a couple thousand years ago, and the orcs chose to side with the Dark Lord, and the elves are rich, and some orcs are “blooded” and some aren’t (I’m still not sure what this means), and magic is wielded only by Brights, and by the way a Bright is a magical person, and oh by the way there is a street gang wearing baseball jerseys who are sort of working with the elves but not really, and there’s a mafia-esque group of “blooded” orcs, and the elves are somehow involved with the Wand that Ward (Will Smith) and Jakoby (Joe Edgerton) found (and which they spend most of the movie protecting, because of reasons).
Let’s talk about fantasy archetype inter-species relations: The setting of this film alone requires a lot of its viewers, without the elaborate and unfamiliar plot. Had the creators, instead of trying to do everything, simply focused on one thing, this could have been an effective platform for exposing hypocrisy in our perceptions of race. Let me elaborate—had the film, say, simply been a story of a human cop and an orc cop in an alternate present teamed up together to fight some sort of usual crime, like a robbery, then we could have seen the story of racial tension in America once removed. Instead of a white cop and a black cop teamed up, overcoming their distrust through shared experience, we’d see a human cop and a member of a completely invented disadvantaged group teamed up, overcoming their distrust through shared experience and subverting our expectations at the same time by making viewers first identify with the human character—regardless of race—and then come to understand the Orc. Instead, we don’t have time for any of that because we’re busy trying to understand why elves? Why a wand? Why is magic bad? Why did Jakoby lie or not lie about the orc who shot Ward? Why did they bother casting a wife for Officer Ward when she appears only to be told to flee? Why don’t all elves speak English when all orcs apparently do?
Let’s applaud the risk-takers: Although this particular effort was not terribly successful, there’s something to be said for taking on material that is out of the ordinary. It seems as though Landis and Ayers were aiming to create a B-movie cult classic (and, with time, maybe we’ll find they did). There’s room in the cinematic universe for such things, and without directors, writers, and actors willing to invest themselves in projects that aren’t obvious blockbusters, we would miss out on many worthwhile works of art. So, although Bright is gratuitous in almost every way, it took a great deal of creativity and effort, and that should not be dismissed out of hand. That said, I don’t know that this is the creative hill upon which I would die.
Overall: Bright is a violent, complicated, and crowded film, with few laughs, a lot of blood, and many unanswered questions about an alternate present where fairies are pests, elves are rich, and orcs are second class. There is also a wand, and resurrection, and magic.