Netflix’s Bright Is a Dim Urban Fantasy

Bright, the new Netflix original film starring Will Smith, has a promising premise, with its merging of fantasy elements into an urban setting. Unfortunately, far too often during its run time, it takes us out of its spectacle.

Sometimes it’s with the blunt racial allegories that wallop the audience scene after scene. Sometimes it’s the story that slings bland second-act labels of prophecies, endlessly spoken-of MacGuffins, and being a chosen wizard of sorts. Sometimes it’s the awkwardly awful writing of such lines as “Fairy lives don’t matter” and “If you act like my enemy, you become my enemy.” I’m sure director David Ayer and writer Max Landis were aiming for something akin to The Lord of the Rings meets Alien Nation with their film, but the result is closer to Warcraft meets Theodore Rex.

Jakoby and Ward with guns drawn

Joel Edgerton and Will Smith as an orc and human working side by side. Matt Kennedy/Netflix

Los Angeles is portrayed in the world of Bright as a little scummier than the real-life version, despite the inclusion of orcs, elves, and fairies. The fairies are pests, treated like squirrels for trying to get into bird feeders, as in the opening scene where one is swatted and stomped to death. Elves are the elites, occupying the rich part of town, where they don the latest fashions in pointy ears. The orcs are a destitute race, occupying the same slums as gangsters, dressed in football jerseys and gold chains. If you think you’re going to get some heavy-handed commentary about orcs being relatable to the social plight of black people, you’re wrong; “heavy-handed” is too light of a description for such bluntness.

One orc who isn’t considered one of his own kind is Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the LAPD’s first orc officer. Every human on the police force despises this cop for his presence alone, including his reluctant partner, Ward (Will Smith), who was previously let down by Jakoby when an orc shot him in the line of duty. So there’s plenty of incentive for the other cops to make a gunshot to Jakoby look like an accident. Ward just wants to do his job, keep his head down, and make it home safely to his wife and kid. Oh, and he’s also trying to sell his house, as an extra incentive for things to go wrong.

As Ward and Jakoby contend with crooked cops, they discover a magic wand at a crime scene. In this world, wands can make any type of magic possible, leading to everyone wanting to capture this mystical instrument for their personal needs. Unfortunately, the wand can only be wielded by a special type of user, designated as a Bright; anyone else who touches the wand will be vaporized, leaving a big explosion. For this reason, it’s baffling why local gangs would want to acquire the wand for their personal magic use when almost nobody can use it. Then again, there’s no definitive way to know if you’re a Bright. You just have to grab the wand and hope you don’t get fried. What a gamble.

Aside from everyone wanting that stupid wand, there’s also an elf girl, Tikka (Lucy Fry), who tags along with the duo. Ayer doesn’t even try to differentiate this character from The Fifth Element’s Leeloo; everything from her agile figure to her childish traits to her accented voice and fearful perkiness just screams of theft. Of course, she’s also the chosen one who can wield the wand. But she doesn’t have red hair, so I guess she’s completely different.

Jakoby and Tikka

Jakoby with Tikka, an elf on the run. Matt Kennedy/Netflix

The entire film revolves around Ward, Jakoby, and Tikka running all over the filthy LA streets with everyone hunting them for the wand. And wow, did I get sick of the word wand and how much people talk about it. You’d think just one other person would have some more insight into this magical MacGuffin, but you won’t find much with silent killer elves, dirty cops, secretive magic FBI agents, Latino gangs, and an orc gang that congregates in a church with an apparently bottomless pit for dead bodies. The most we see this wand do is stop a car, bring someone back to life, and zap people into ash. Seems like such power could be used for far more, but perhaps the people on the streets of LA have a limited imagination.

Watching the film, Bright always felt like it was half or even a quarter of the various films it was aiming to be. There’s a lot of worldbuilding, but the world is reduced to small glimpses behind the blur of graffiti-tagged warehouses, convenience stores, and strip clubs. The buddy-cop aspect feels woefully underdeveloped, revealing little about Ward and Jakoby past their racial perceptions and required camaraderie. There’s an overwhelming amount of wasted potential in such a story: the FBI of magic doesn’t seem to do much anything past regular FBI work; the orcs seem to have some dark history with humans, but it’s only spoken of in passing, with a few stories about Russian wars and partying with dwarves. Even the elves seem dull, dressed in typical bad-guy-style suits and droning on in elvish tongue about finding the wand and summoning a dark lord.

Ward and Jakoby in their cop car

On the job. Matt Kennedy/Netflix

I wanted to like this film, but it kept being held back by one thing or another—be it the lack of Ayer’s trademark visual flair or Landis’s script with its half-thought zingers and been-there-heard-that fantasy exposition. It’s as if the movie seems hellbent on trying to stress the paint-by-numbers cop story over the fantasy elements, but the two partners are fighting so furiously to edge each other off the screen that neither looks appealing. If the film is going to be this standoffish with delving into the culture of orcs, elves, and fairies, why not throw some kobolds, imps, and giants into the dialogue as well? They don’t need to be shown, as with the dwarves; just write them all off as moving to Canada.

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