“Bright” isn’t a bad movie.
The reviews haven’t been kind. Rotten Tomatoes has it at 26%. New York Times: “a loud, ungainly hybrid”; CNN: “a bloated, expensive mess“; Chicago Sun Times: “a tired buddy-cop movie dressed up in bizarre trappings.” Ouch.
Sure, the world-building could’ve been stronger (more on that later), and it would’ve been nice to see more of Jacoby’s back story, but there’s a lot of good in the movie. Great performances by Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, and, yes, that it is a loud, ungainly, expensive, bizarre buddy-cop movie. For an escapist flick, it is different and an altogether enjoyable ride.
What drives the story isn’t so much the buddy-cop angle with wondering if an Orc can get along as the first Orc in the Los Angeles Police Department; rather, it is the presence of terrorists, a rogue Elf, the hunt for a powerful wand, and the possible return of The Dark Lord. If you don’t think too much about it, and let the movie’s strangeness wash over you, it is a fine cinematic time.
The problem with the movie is that it is both too much and not enough. Perhaps this is a fault of marketing that foregrounded the Orc-Human buddy-cop angle, and not enough of how it is really a chase movie through a world that is both familiar and strange.
The movie’s main weakness announces itself in the opening credits. We are shown a series of run-down areas in L.A. tagged with spray-painted graffiti to convey messages from various points of view, such as pro-Orc, anti-Orc, and pro-Dark Lord. You could call it “world building,” I guess, or “setting the table.” The problem is that there is an uncanny consistency to all the graffiti that makes it look like it was created by the same person and that it had just been applied. Had Orcs and Elves just arrived in the human L.A.?
The effect is to create a world that is more imposed upon than lived in. What’s missing is a sense of a lived-in world that has allowed for, or allows for, humans, Orcs, and Elves to share space, even if they don’t get along. There’s a moment in the movie when a character remarks that the Orcs made the wrong decision 2,000 years ago by backing the Dark Lord—and some people are awaiting the Dark Lord’s return. So is the Dark Lord sort of the opposite of Jesus? A contemporary of Jesus? A replacement for him in this different world? And is it Orcs who are pro-Dark Lord or is it bad Elves, too? Any humans?
Here’s one way of looking at it: worlds are best built by showing the world as characters move through it, navigate difficulties, have desires sparked by the world, and they strive to get what they want. On Twitter, Fonda Lee has a great thread on it that includes this:
Perhaps the best moment of this is when the two police officers, running from the Bad Elves find themselves in an Orc-ish disco in which the Orcs, Humans, and maybe even Elves, drink, dance, and comingle to the music. It is a moment of togetherness as setting as the cops play out their drama that deepens our sense of this fantasy world by suggesting the possibility for harmony.
However, in “Bright,” the character who introduces us to this strange world is none other than the Fresh Prince, I mean the character played by the always affable and charming Will Smith, a performer who always seems to be having a good time. Why not? Once upon a time, it was thought necessary for a mainstream movie or novel to have a white person be the vessel through which the audience enters the fictional world (this may still be the case in some areas). So to have Will Smith be that character could be seen as a sign of progress in both how studios approach stories and in the audience’s willingness to accept them. Then again, Will Smith has been a leading man in tons of films and a couple—“Independence Day” and “Men In Black”—are cultural touchstones in American popcorn cinema history.
What would be truly radical—and maybe help with the world-building issue—is if the movie allowed the audience to enter the world of “Bright” through Jacoby. What’s his home look like? Does he have art on the walls? What games or sports did he play when he was a kid? A lot of the promotional material for “Bright” emphasized the Orc as other as an analogy to the racial disharmony in America, but we mostly understand that point of view from Will Smith’s character—who seems to be a member of “our” world—and not Jacoby.
This is a real missed opportunity. In a time when so many story tellers are growing more sensitive to issues of authenticity—the question of who gets to tell whose story—it would seem that in order for the audience to know the Orc-ish point of view we don’t need Will Smith to tell us; rather, we need to see the world from the Orc’s point of view.
Maybe we’ll get that chance. A sequel to “Bright” had already been announced.