I went into watching Will Smith’s $90 million Netflix feature film, Bright, with no expectations and I believe it was for the best. If I had carried any hopes for the movie, any one of its many faults would have dashed them. So I only finished the movie with a vague feeling of What the heck did I just see? So let me tell you what I think I saw in Bright. (Spoilers ahead).
All is chaotic, all is Bright
Bright is a dark, dystopic fantasy trying to be a cross between The Lord of the Rings, Crash, Bad Boys, and The Fifth Element. All of this? Yes. Bright introduces a Los Angeles where humans, orcs, elves, and fairies live together in segregated disharmony. A veteran Black Los Angeles Police Department officer, Daryl Ward (played by Will Smith) gets stuck with Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), a rookie orc cop integrating the force. Those elements alone would be enough for a compelling narrative. But they added an Illuminati-like cult of elves trying to bring back a Dark Lord with some glow stick wands and a vague “prophecy.” Because Bright tries to explore race, fantasy, adventure, police brutality, and an enemy-turned-buddy cop relationship in a two-hour film, it achieves little of what it sets out to do. (Although, I still can’t exactly pinpoint what that is).
Will Smith gives us tired, mid-career cop who wisecracks his way throughout his beat and his beat-downs. You can immediately make the Bad Boys connection here, even though Bright’s Daryl Ward isn’t nearly as charming as Bad Boys’ Mike Lowry. Still, Ward turns on the roasts, telling one gangster orc to take his “Shrek-looking ass” back home to Fiona. He is more anti-hero than hero, embodying much of the social ills on which the movie casts a baleful eye. In terms of inter-species relations, Ward is a human supremacist who vocally doesn’t want Jakoby as his partner. He beats up fairies. Ward kills four fellow officers without much reflection or remorse. The audience knows we are supposed to root for him only because the camera follows him.
The main orc character, Nick Jakoby, compels far more interest than his human partner. Yet, it perplexed me how little time they spent on developing Jakoby. He had enough chutzpah to join an orc-hating police force and make enemies of his own people. His filed-down fangs and lack of blooded orc affiliation marks him as a traitor to his kind. But Jakoby is meek in the face of the micro-aggressions he receives from his own partner and colleagues.
What motivates him beyond his burning desire to be a cop? He tells his partner, “I wanted to be a cop since I was a little kid. I am nothing else. My badge means more to me than the air I breathe.” It shows. We don’t know if Jakoby holds anything else in his heart (family, hobbies, an irrational love for Starbucks) besides the piece of metal he wears over it. Because Bright essentially treats him as if who he is doesn’t matter as much as what he stands for, he is a flat, uninteresting character.
Bright under-develops the best thing it has going for it
Let’s talk about the fantastical aspect of the movie for a moment, which is intriguing. This universe wants very badly for us to believe much is at stake if its glowing blue magic winds up in the wrong (elvish, orc, or human) hands. However, it squanders the opportunity to flesh out the fantasy, crutching on wooden dialogue, special effects, and sweeping panoramas to evoke emotion. What is The Prophecy and why does everyone seem to believe it in a world where magic is only legally
suppressed handled by the Feds? Bright does not make you care about its fantasy Los Angeles because it does not support its own mythology within the action of the film. Director David Ayer stuffs so much into Bright that it probably would have fared better as an episodic series.
If I have this right, orcs are bad and justifiable oppressed because they sided with the Dark Lord two thousand years prior. The orcs are so stereotypical, they’re nearly cartoonish. They wear over-sized sports jerseys, thick gold chains around their necks, blast loud music, and terrorize the city in gangs. Orcs can’t even be just orcs; they are a stand-in for a stereotype of Black or Latinx people. I do wish the movie had shown more of interspecies life. What is orc culture beyond the hyper-masculine images seen through the eyes of the LAPD’s occupation?
The elves (whether your anti-Semitism leads you to see them as Jews or not) are the magic-wielding One Percent and have no personality beyond snootiness and materialism. Their pale faces and silvery blond hair contrast sharply with the orcs’ mottled green skin. Even if the endless expository dialogue dd not spell it out, the costuming made the social hierarchy painfully obvious. What’s not apparent is the “how” behind elvish domination. The Illuminati/Inferni elves are all expert at martial arts, but convincingly spray semi-automatics, too. Underground extremist, but still rich. The elf-in-distress, Tikka, is a dead ringer for Milla Jovovich’s Leeloo from The Fifth Element. She essentially does a lot of ducking and Elvish-speaking and is useless until it’s time for her to save the planet at the last minute.
Bright shows us cops, orcs, elves, and fairies all doing monstrous things. There are humans of different races, but they band together in hatred for other species. Also: “All the women are White, all the Blacks are men.” While I cynically disbelieve human racism would subside in a dystopic LA, it’s not implausible to me marginalized humans would oppress orcs the way they have historically been oppressed. But who bears the fullness of humanity in Bright? What character is three-dimensional, well developed, and not a stand-in for an archetype trying to make a point? I would offer Jakoby, but there is one major reason why he fails the test for me.
Bright delivers an obtuse message about race and police brutality
If you’ll remember, I likened Bright to four other films, one of which was Crash. I don’t see this Will Smith vehicle winning an Academy Award. But I do think it handles race about as well as Crash did. In other words–with all the finesse of a head-on collision. Bright fairly beats you over the snout with its allegories. But the variety in interpretations have been the fascinating part about the other people’s reactions to the movie. I’ve seen this breakdown: Orcs = Blacks people; Humans = White people; Cops = cops; Elves = Jews (Which…what?! No.)
Bright depicts human-on-orc police brutality with slow-motion pornographic glee. They want us know these cops are really, really bad, even evil. The movie presents Jakoby as the redemptive face of an ugly institution. He does the “right thing” as an officer and suffers for it. He is supposed to be one good apple. But as the proverb goes, only one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. The police department has a bushel full of bad apples waiting to spoil the one good orc. Jakoby’s interaction with Ward shows the embattled rookie will ultimately be forced to betray his own values. When they roll up on fellow officers beating the tar out of some orcs, Ward brutishly demands to know if his partner is cop first or an orc. If Jakoby wants to belong as an LAPD officer, he must honor the blue wall or it will crush him.
The fraught relationship between the two partners implies (as it goes in so many movies about race) individual heroics will change a racist’s heart. Jakoby’s only purpose in the movie is to serve as orc Jesus to save Ward from his own racism. The orc had to prove himself “down” enough to win Ward’s trust–not as a rookie cop, but as a person of a different species. And Ward is worthy of saving because…he’s a Bright and he has five years before he can collect his pension? Girl, I guess. By the end of the movie, their romp across town brought them together as partners, together as Angelenos. One step closer to harmony because a racist needed a near-death experience to find his humanity. That tired trope needs to die. Kill it with fire from the Dark Lord.
And so, the imagery in the closing scene is incongruous with how Bright leads viewers to feel about their fictional LAPD. Ward and Jakoby both receive commendations for their heroism. Are we supposed to cheer because the orc police officer finally receives recognition? Do we leave with hope the partners can reform the corrupt LAPD and fend off the Dark Lord again in Bright 2? Furthermore, did Bright even give us a universe we should believe is worth saving? I don’t think it did.
So what are the “Bright” spots in this dark fantasy?
Believe it or not, I actually liked Bright. It’s a SFF romp starring a Black man, who produced it with his production company, for a streaming service that makes it widely available to millions of people. And 11 million people watched it in the first three days; it must have some redeeming qualities. I’m hopeful that Smith, Netflix, and other creatives can improve on the model, subverting the box office for bigger films. The buddy cop action film delivers on every shoot-out and combat scene. The quick pace drags you along with it, and if you don’t stop to think about the story behind the fight, it’s pretty fun. You can clearly see a chunk of the $90 million budget went toward effects and makeup. The physical aspects of the orcs were really well done. I also wanted more fairies. It really needs to be a 10-episode series.
Most of all, the film reminded me of The Fifth Element, which is a cult favorite of mine. Both movies are bombastically corny in their earnestness, but still dedicated to comic relief. The bad guys are all tin men and the good guys aren’t Superman. Will Smith can still carry a movie crouching and rolling behind stock cars even if his partner is a dumbfounded orc. (Although, I’m really going to need Will Smith to ease up on making dystopic movies for a while).
A lot of viewers think critics have panned Bright unfairly. They haven’t. We can evaluate what it doesn’t do well while acknowledging the parts that make it enjoyable. I am not the type of movie watcher who thinks all movies need to be of award-winning caliber. #BlackMediocrity! But I will call a spade a spade–Bright isn’t a diamond by a long stretch, and it’s rough in a lot of places. But the spots where it glints can still make you smile.