Minor plot spoilers included.
I like Will Smith, so even after numerous headlines had announced to me that film critics had unfavorably received Netflix’s “Bright,” I thought, I’m bound to watch this eventually. If anyone could give “Bright” a favorable viewing, it’d probably be me. Especially after a cocktail, as was the case when I did watch.
But neither my respect for Smith as an actor nor the cranberry vodka ginger ale could put “Bright” in the “not a waste of time” column. If I had seen it in the theater instead of from the comfort of my own couch, I would’ve walked out. I guess the equivalent would’ve been going to bed, but I persevered for the eminently respectable goal of being able to have an opinion about it.
For those of you who haven’t been forced to watch the autoplayed trailer on Netflix the second you open the app, “Bright” is the story of a pair of Los Angeles cops, a human named Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and an orc named Nick Jacoby (Joel Edgerton), who find themselves entangled in an ancient prophecy.
The idea of taking all the main fantasy races (elves, dragons, centaurs, fairies, orcs, etc.) we are familiar with and superimposing them onto the modern, developed world is intriguing and bold. “Bright” straddles two genres, drawing its characters from classic fantasy and the setting from a modern police department. It’s half fantasy-adventure and half police drama.
Not Enough Backstory on ‘Bright’s’ Weird World
It’s a daring vision, and it might’ve worked if “Bright” had been a series instead of a movie. It’s a bit like combining water and chocolate—it takes time and proper technique, or else you end up with brown water and tiny bits of chocolate floating on the top. In “Bright,” the fantasy characters were isolated bits swirled into another genre but refusing to blend. If the writers and producers had given themselves room to build their world, to flesh out the details, the history, the cultures, and fully incorporate the two genres, it could have worked.
Instead, viewers are thrown meager tidbits of history, such as the existence of a “Dark Lord” and an epic battle 2,000 years ago. They see brief snapshots of L.A.’s subcultures, including a 15-second tour through the “Elven District,” from which we come away with the bare knowledge that they are privileged, and a minute or two of Orcish graffiti while the credits roll at the beginning. The graffiti is the most thorough insight viewers get into what becomes a major thread in the plot, so hopefully they don’t use that time to check email on their phones.
It is a shame that an idea like this was squandered on a mere two hours. The richness of fantasy comes from the depth and detail of the world. You go there, whether it be in television or book, to escape. “Avatar” had to be nearly three hours long for that reason, and it could get away with that length because it was freaking gorgeous.
L.A. is not that gorgeous. For “Bright” to have drawn the viewer into its world, it would’ve needed time, incredible attention to detail, and skillful character development. It would’ve needed to show rather than just tell. But as much as all those things, it desperately needed the art of subtlety.
Worse Than the World Was Its Pretentious Self-Awareness
What truly quashed the potential of “Bright” was its painful self-awareness, its obviousness, not just in the plot, but in its goals. An article in New York magazine this month spent considerable time dissecting the purposeful “wokeness” in recent TV and film: “A new set of concerns — a self-conscious moral duty in matters of identity, of inclusion and representation — had come to dominate discussions among creators, critics, and consumers alike. A fundamental question (perhaps the first question; sometimes the only question) to ask of a work was how well it fulfilled these ideals. In what ways did it engage with the values of a pluralistic society?”
I doubt you could find a better (that is to say, more terrible) example of “the great awokening” than “Bright.” From the first shot of the orc graffiti to the fairy flying toward the camera at the end, you feel like Max Landis, the screenplay writer, has been checking “woke” boxes.
The analogs are too obvious. You understand instantaneously not that the orcs have some vague commonalities with black Americans today, but that they are supposed to represent black Americans directly. The fact that Smith is black and there are other black characters doesn’t confuse even a little bit. It’s that obvious. The prevalence of gangs, the systemic discrimination, the antagonistic relationship between the orc community and the police, the treatment of the first orc cop in the nation as a traitor—it’s an obvious composite sketch of blacks in America, largely from a liberal perspective.
The elves are supposed to represent the 1 percent. They hold all the wealth and good jobs, we are told. They’re also privileged above all other races in comprising the magically gifted population almost exclusively. Translated: they hold the keys to the halls of power. They can make things happen that non-elves could only dream of. “Bright” has the two out of three main bases of wokeness covered: systemic racism and inequality. Sexual diversity is excluded (tsk tsk).
As the New York magazine article explained, “Now the claim for value lay in its broken ground: A TV show spoke with a voice we hadn’t heard, showed a world we hadn’t seen, confronted us with a perspective we’d ignored.” But even in this new era of wokeness, “Bright” fails utterly.
It’s Not Brave to Point Out Racism Is Bad
The analogs are mere reflections of narratives we hear every single day in national discourse. “Bright” seems to declare, “Racism is a thing, and it’s bad, and you should feel empathy for this poor persecuted orc.” Yeah, no kidding. So there’s nothing new here. Nothing to discover. No perspective we’ve ignored. We’re simply presented with two genres mashed together according to wokeness doctrine.
In any case, because the film felt so hurried and the orcs were done in makeup and costume without CGI enhancement (that I can tell), the invitation to empathy falls flat. The orcs’ appearance differs significantly from that of humans. It’s as if viewers are being challenged to identify with the non-human character, dared not to be their usual racist selves.
You can sympathize with Jacoby, of course, but throughout the movie, the viewer is just too conscious of the analog that the character feels inauthentic. Another way to describe it is that one feels too woke. Not to a new understanding of reality, but simply too aware of the sociopolitical commentary being made. I was much more deeply moved when Groot was reduced to a tiny twig in “Guardians of the Galaxy” than when Jacoby was shot in the chest. In other words, the characters feel inauthentic because the whole film is politically contrived.
Generating empathy for non-human characters, particularly those less humanoid, has always been the challenge for sci-fi, particularly TV sci-fi. Joel Edgerton’s acting as Jacoby didn’t cross me as inadequate, but without the help of CGI for more subtle facial expressions and character development, how did they hope to do it better here? And if you can’t do a better job, or at least an adequate job, why do it at all?
On top of all these problems, the movie is rated MA. It could easily have been made TV-14 without sacrificing any grit or drama (if you can call anything in this film by those names). The gratuitous swearing, nudity, and a disturbing scene that implies a baby is smothered to death actually contributed to the feeling of inauthenticity. “Raw and gritty cop drama” is just a subgenre too far from fantasy-adventure. Wikipedia describes the movie as “urban fantasy action crime.” That pretty much says it all.
“Bright” couldn’t bridge the gap between genres, but its lack of nuance and insight did it in. It’s not a movie, or even a commentary—it’s a boring regurgitation of common political narratives. Is that what it means to be “woke?” If so, I’d rather go to bed.