By: Steve Pulaski
David Ayer's Bright has been marketed as Netflix's first foray into blockbusters or big-budget films that could've realistically went to theaters. Simply put, Bright fits right in with a year that's given us The Mummy, Justice League, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Power Rangers, and other terrible and expensive misfires as Hollywood fumbles like an inept football player trying to get the next big franchise off the ground.
Just when you thought Ayer was poised for a comeback after Suicide Squad undoubtedly left a blemish on his career, the man who once directed the emotionally involving cop-drama End of Watch doubles-down on the maligned misfit superhero film by following up it with one that should make the Harley/Joker apologists come out of the woodwork. Bright makes a remarkable attempt at being an allegory on race, as well as a cop-drama and a fantasy with magic and mythical elements and winds up being an even more remarkable artistic failure. It's a film with too many directions that fails each one in a unique way; one that should be a textbook example of what transpires when a film is so hopeless due to its Z-rate screenplay it can't make its world convincing or even its looser moments anything worth remembering.
Picture this: it's an alternate present where humans live amongst three other races known as "orcs" and "elves." This comes many years after a civil war that suggests after several years of bloody, merciless battle everyone went their separate ways to live alongside each other and the latter two second-class citizens somehow wound up with their rights without any legislation following the tumult. That illogical buildup still would've made for an intriguing first-step forBright, but perhaps we'll have to wait for the greenlit prequel to understand how all of that went down. Instead, we focus on a Los Angeles police officer named Daryl Ward (Will Smith), whose partner is an orc named Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton buried under layers of prosthetics) that almost got him killed in cold-blood one day. Los Angeles is a graffiti-laden hellhole where crime and interspecies tension is boiling over, and things become worse when Ward and Jakoby are in possession of a magic wand that belongs to an elf named Tikka (Lucy Fry). Tikka is the lone survivor in a shootout at a ramshackle safehouse on a disturbance call. The wand is essentially a weapon of mass destruction that cannot be transported a great distance from its owner, so the film comes down to Ward and Jakoby understanding the powers of this peculiar sorcery and what role it plays in trying to mediating the conflicts between orcs and humans. Jakoby is a friend to neither species, being the pariah of the orc race because he is a cop and being an outcast in the police circle because he is a orc.
Bright was written by Max Landis, and for some, that's all that will need to be said in order for them to completely forgo the possibility of giving the film the time of day. Landis, who is still a one-film-wonder in my mind having never written anything remotely close to the level of quality and promise he showed in Chronicle, wrote both American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein, two forgettable flops that landed with a thud not because of a lack of creative ambition but due to the fact they were overstuffed in that very department. Landis's Bright is a dreadful muchness that serves as the rotten core at the center of this film; the reason it cannot get off the ground and become anything remotely resembling successful. The primary issue is that the film is trying to flaunt the versatility of its premise all at once when it would've been wise to place greater emphasis on most of these attributes in subsequent installments. The racial allegory at the center of the film, where orcs obviously represent black people and the discrimination they've faced as a collective, is hammy and never explored beneath the surface of basic recognition of its real-life parallel. The banter between Ward and Jakoby as police officers has the dramatic depth of a Bad Boys film (not just any, one actually written by Michael Bay), and often undercuts the seriousness of the situations that these men face.
Then there's the element of magic and mysticism, which Landis tries to employ despite having no real grasp on how to make it successful. There's a reason desperately few screenwriters try to emulate the way a series like Harry Potter Lord of the Rings was brought to the big-screen by infusing a story with magical elements. One of them is because of how difficult it is to convey. It requires intense world-building, where audiences should emerge knowing not only the dramatic stakes for the characters but also the laws that exist in the film and the respective verisimilitude. Furthermore, this could lead to rote "telling," in a screenwriting sense, rather than the more exciting route of "showing," but therein lies another issue; how do you explain how the magic of a particular universe works without relying on monologues or narration? These are complex questions I'm not sure Landis addressed when writing Bright, so the film suffers greatly due to Landis throwing every direction and inclusion he feels could stay afloat in the film until the entire project capsizes under the weight of its ideas and the weakness of its writing.
The problem of bad writing spills over to the performances too. Everyone feels like they're acting in a different film because the one in which they find themselves doesn't have an identity. All the racial drama that is so integral to the mood of the first act is abandoned once the film realizes it has a world to develop. Even then, it can't adequately come to life because Landis needs to stage another gunfight, or there's some ugly setpiece we must explore. For a $90 million, you could've fooled me by telling me that this was B-roll, workprint footage of a Deadshot and Killer Croc spinoff or even unreleased footage from Suicide Squad.
Bright's failure rests comfortably alongside other star-driven Netflix exclusives like Brad Pitt's War Machine and Ricky Gervais's Special Correspondents, proving the studio is anything but infallible when it comes to original content. Despite putting out some of the best television shows of our time and giving a platform for revivals of beloved favorites like Full House and Pee-wee Herman, Netflix proves that they are still victim to landmines in the way of poorly conceived fantasies and Adam Sandler catastrophes. They're also not so far removed from buying into a potential franchise that copied the new favorite mistake of Hollywood, which is planning for a long, prosperous future rather than focusing on making one really good film in hopes there's interest and positive reception. Bright brings Netflix down to Earth perhaps in hopes that it can master this frontier before it tries to take on another.