Urban fantasy allows for the premise, what if a fantasy world like Middle-Earth from The Lord of the Rings or Westeros from Game of Thrones were allowed to progress up until the modern age? Elves, orcs, humans, and magic, dwelling side-by-side in a modern, urban setting, driving cars and firing guns instead of riding horses and shooting arrows. In principle, this is an extremely useful vehicle for exploring morals and ethics of the modern age (see: Harry Potter). But in the wrong hands, written by people who don’t understand the appeal of fantasy in the first place, it becomes something like Bright.
In this Netflix Original, nearly every cliché in the book plays out note-for-note as Daryl Ward (Will Smith)—a career cop who can’t play nice with anyone—gets partnered with the first ever orc police officer, Nick Jakoby (played by Joel Edgerton, the only actor who seems to really be trying in this whole endeavor). Ward must learn to accept Jakoby while Jakoby has to come to terms with being labeled a traitor for joining the police force, who have historically oppressed the orc community in order to protect upper-class elf culture. Sound familiar?
If it doesn’t, you should pay more attention to both historical and modern events, because the world of Bright is nothing original. Blacks have been swapped out for orcs, and the rich are replaced by elves. There’s even a horrible (or hilarious, depending on where you stand) montage when the elves are introduced, showing them driving around the ritzy part of town in fancy cars, shopping. Now, this in and of itself isn’t a bad idea—to use imaginative races from fantasy or science-fiction to explore the dynamics playing out between ethnic and class groups today. It worked to great affect in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, and both iterations of Blade Runner, among many other great films. What doesn’t work here is that the writer, Max Landis, has made no attempts to codify his own original social systems and history to explore such issues, as was done in the films just mentioned.
Science-fiction and fantasy are both genres that thrive on their ability to sell you on the reality of another world. Without a sense of history—that the world in the film has been around for a long time and will continue to exist long after you step away from the screen—the story has no weight and the viewers will not be able to empathize with the characters. This suspension of disbelief is key to both genres, and is the critical component that both Max Landis and the director, David Ayer (of 2016's Suicide Squad), fail to understand. Fantasy fans are students of history, which is what makes the genre such a perfect medium for social commentary. Without a history, the entire appeal of the world falls apart and people won’t engage. Sure, there are some mentions in the film of an old war and a generic “Dark Lord”, but these come across more as setup for a potential sequel than a serious attempt to breath life into a secondary world.
It’s as if the creators of this film knew nothing about the appeal of fantasy before deciding to use the genre to explore contemporary issues. There are multiple instances in the film where fantasy creatures are placed into a shot for no reason other than to remind you “this is a fantasy movie”. A centaur clad in full police body armor helps guard the scene of a crime in progress. Why? A dragon flies through the sky during one transition shot. Why? Daryl Ward starts his morning by exterminating a pestering fairy that is assaulting their bird feeder. Why? The answer to all these identical questions is depressingly straightforward: Because they don’t want the viewer to forget that they’re in a fantasy world.
Perhaps even more offensive, for a film that really wants to champion the rights of the oppressed, the movie sure does do a lot of oppressing of its own. In a surprising lack of foresight, the creators of Bright have written the film’s Latino characters into the archetype of the tatted gang-bangers. The angry Latino cop also makes an appearance, using one of his few lines of dialogue to complain about the Alamo. While I ultimately leave it to those in that ethnic group to comment on the respect exhibited by the Latino roles in this film, it seemed to me a show of insensitivity that railed against the very message Bright intended to promote. David Ayer is no stranger to narratives about the conflict between the police/government and urban communities, with five of his seven films exploring the topic.
But with Bright, Ayer has taken a huge step back from the potential he showed with a film like Fury—2014’s World War II tank movie that was most often compared to Saving Private Ryan—and begins to cement his reputation as a middle-of-the-line director who uses “cops vs. street” as a fallback. A far cry from Fury’s intense and brutal action scenes, Bright opts for cheesy, flash-cut sequences with bad gymnastics and clear wire stunts reminiscent of Blade, the first X-Men film, or any other bad comic book adaptation from the early 2000s (I’m looking at you, Daredevil).
The creators of Bright clearly wanted to craft a narrative that explored contemporary ethics through the lens of something that felt “safe”, something like the fantasy medium that modern film-goers were already engaging with on a regular basis, but in the process they’ve only assaulted the decency which serves as a medium of exchange between any two groups of people. Worse, they've demonstrated their failure to understand the depth that fantasy can truly have. In this way, they’ve created a film that feels like it was written by someone standing entirely outside of the genre looking in, making a checklist of things that people find appealing. One critic argued that the film felt like it was written by algorithms, and with the sheer amount of clichés and tropes present in the film, I have to say this doesn’t feel far off the mark. Fantasy and science-fiction are not genres to be entered without understanding and without a true cognizance of what makes the genres great for emotional storytelling. If you just swap “blacks” and “rich” out with “orcs” and “elves”, you haven’t created something compelling, you’ve created something bland, and offended the sensibilities of a group of people who take their genre loyalties very seriously.
Bright could have been a step in the right direction, the transition of a longstanding genre in literature and comics to the big screen. It could have been written seriously and shown Hollywood the potential for new stories from science-fiction and fantasy. Instead, it will have to consign itself to the history books of the real world as a laughing stock, something that people pull out shortly after they’ve finished watching The Room.
That is, at least until Bright 2 releases.