Will Smith and Joel Edgerton star as a pair of Los Angeles police officers in an urban fantasy crime action film released this month on Netflix called ‘Bright‘. The mash-up concept behind the film, which surprisingly cost the fledgling ‘studio’ a whopping $90 Million dollars to produce, is Lord of the Rings meets… Training Day. It’s an odd mix from a cinematic approach, but a genre I am affectionately fond of, so I was quite looking forward to the attempt.
For starters I’ve longed looked forward to a studio tackling this genre with a decent appreciation for the concept and most importantly the budget to implement some believable effects to bring to life magic in a modern city-scape. From a purely graphic standpoint, the film definitely captures a sense of modern urban sprawl and does a good job of integrating the special effects, both mundane and magical on screen. There’s a ton of shoot-outs, chases and fight scenes that are well shot, easy to follow and decently choreographed. However, to be honest, many of the scenes are excruciatingly reminiscent of so many other films, down to plot points and actual on-screen characters.
Director David Ayer (Suicide Squad, End of Watch) makes certain to pepper each of these LA scenes, both the action ones and the more sublime ones, with a huge helping of diverse background characters, from Asian grocers to quasi-supremacist cops to latino thugs. Alongside this wide-net of humanity are, mostly, orcish citizens and other ‘magical’ races like elves and dwarves. The film hammers pretty hard the fact that in this alternative world, orcs take the place of the ‘brown’ and ‘black’ people of the world, while elves take the place of, I suppose, wealthy Europeans?
Amidst these racial factions, sojourns the two heroes of the film, Officer Ward (Smith) and rookie orc cop Jakoby (Edgerton). Evidently, despite existing alongside humans for at least 2,000 years according to the movies ‘history’ Jakoby is the first orc allowed on a police force, anywhere, in the world. Which is just one of the many, many, many incongruences in the films ‘alternative’ history.
This history is revealed mostly in the opening of the film, with shots of orc ‘graffiti’ that detail their story, struggle and a figure known only as the Dark Lord, whom the orcs evidently sided with thousands of years ago and hence, become outcasts the world over. (More exposition is given in an interrogation scene between a human protector of ‘Light’ and an elf and possibly dwarf federal agent duo, looking for the films primary antagonist, a rogue elf)
Its an interesting setup and quite frankly immediately reminded me of my attempts to elucidate on this idea of ‘urban-fantasy’ being more in-line with actual urban life than with decidedly unrealistic ‘urban’ depictions of the genre (read: Dresden Files).
*Mild Spoilers Ahead*
The crux of the issue I have with the film, from a purely world-building standpoint, is the complete lack of appreciation for the actual implications of a truly ‘magical’ alternative world.
What Bright does is rest its entire premise on the fact that in a world where magical beings exist, the most important stories are about oppressed orcs, and evil elves trying to bring back a shadowy Dark Lord. As if, the existence of magic itself wouldn’t completely change the landscape of the world itself, and for instance, hyper-racism wouldn’t be even more of a problem in a world where evidently elves truly are better than everyone else, somewhat boggles the mind.
So instead of a completely different world, this alternative one is largely the same as ours despite truly different sentient beings, no less magical ones, existing alongside humans. Its such a wild departure from most other urban fantasies where magical beings exist but are largely hidden from view (Patricia Briggs, Laurell K Hamilton, any World of Darkness supplement, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, Twilight, ad nauseam).
What Bright sets up instead is a premise that seems like it should more likely resemble the world of Ethan Hawkes‘ Daybreakers (2009) where vampires have completely taken over the world and humans are hunted to the last. I’m not saying that elves would hunt down people or even orcs, but the idea that actual separate races, with magic at their disposal wouldn’t radically change the course of history is a tough pill to swallow, at least from the standpoint of this viewer.
Bright does have some excellent ideas that unfortunately the film just casually passes over; for instance why are elves richer than everyone else? Why did the orcs side with the Dark Lord? Why aren’t there magical wands everywhere? If brights can wield wands, and even if that’s only a small fraction of the population, why aren’t millions of people actively trying to find wands? Why did an elf looking to resurrect a dark god(?) casually give her wand away to hunt down a nobody? Why are guys with mustaches always evil? Why are there fairies? What rights do other races have? Why should orcs be punished for a 2,000 year old grudge? If elves are lethal killing machines, why can a cop and an orc stop them in a bodega? In a world where magic wands can do anything you want them to, why wouldn’t you cast a location spell on it? The list goes on and on.
Movies and stories like Bright are meant to trigger all these thoughts about the world they create. That’s a huge part of their fun. But instead of seriously giving any of them a chance to truly engage me, the focus instead is on a world-spanning conspiracy of dark elves in the ‘ghettos’ of Los Angeles. Which again, like so much else in the film, makes almost no sense.
I understand the film was using this world as a back-drop for the more personal story of Ward and Jakoby. Unsurprisingly enough, these scenes were actually the best parts in the film. The interaction between Smith and Edgerton, aside from the eventually boorish ribbing, was really great to watch. Their personal story, which the film did a lot in trying to drive home as the heart of the film, which undoubtedly it was, felt really sidelined the entire time by the other scenes that honestly could have been done-away with for the most part. The film wanted to capture a buddy-cop movie feel but they inserted it into a ‘world-spanning’ plot that made both storylines feel out of place. (For a film that actually puts the everyman into a world-spanning crime adventure, Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004) does a fairly decent job of it, and stars Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise)
I understand that this is how a lot of urban fantasy novels read, but for a 2-hour film that tries to jump-start a variant universe, insert characters and a earth-shattering crisis into it, it has trouble ramping up the urgency. Just as an aside, when the two heroes finally meet the ‘big-baddie’ evil elf at the end, she turns around and tries to save her wayward sister, completely torpedoing the whole premise that she was originally out to kill her. Like every other world-mechanic in the movie, the film doesn’t seem to understand its own lore. Which was frustrating.
This ties again into the whole issue of the films poor choices of what to focus on.
If the film had actually wanted to be a buddy cop movie, it should have simply followed Ward and Jakoby around an actual typical day, say for example breaking up some orcs in a domestic dispute, being called to a wealthy elvish mansion, getting a fairy out of tree, or just dealing with actual small crimes, in a magical world, all of which would have provided plenty of opportunities to flesh out the mechanics of this world.
In a world where elves and orcs and humans coexist, it would be nice to also actually have them fully-fleshed out instead of poor caricatures of thuggish ‘dark’ people and mysterious G-men. They created an entire world, a literal sandbox, completely free to change history and physics however they saw fit. Unfortunately they decided instead of taking this opportunity to tell uniquely new stories, to simply give cosmetic makeovers to the same tried and tired tropes and icons. To look at how different beings might actually exist in a modern or post-modern world, look no further than Bladerunner, or Bladerunner 2049. Those films deal with the actual implications of not being human in a human world. And they do so, well.
The whole film trafficked in an assumption of the audiences suspension of belief as to the world it was creating. But instead of addressing the nuances of this world through mundane interactions, it kept hammering new and improbable inconsistencies with each new each scene that by the end left the entire exercise exasperating. (Like nearly every other movie where certain beings have immense power, why wouldn’t the government in Bright’s world track down every single magic user and turn them into their own personal weapon?)
However, despite all these inconsistencies, the film was enjoyable enough to watch and I look forward to the next installment.
Ward and Jakoby, at least, are fun to watch.