Orcs, Elves and Mustaches: Revisiting Bright

Richard takes a look at Will Smith’s buddy cop drama with a fantasy twist. Is it more than just an Alien Nation rip-off?

As a genre-mashing big budget production from what amounts to a streaming service, Bright was always going to be somewhat divisive. Considering that it very blatantly deals with issues like race representation in law enforcement, profiling in the force, and institutionalised police brutality, David Ayer’s film has some very sensitive topics when you consider it is an American production set in Los Angeles. This is Netflix’s first attempt at a blockbuster, and seeing as over eleven million people have apparently seen it, they appear to have succeeded. This is a film which, while not important in its own right, represents a new front in the internet’s battle for entertainment dominance, and as such, should be considered carefully. However, since Bright is a film which involves an ass-kicking, wisecracking Will Smith dealing with orcs, fairies and magic, I would be remiss in not joining every other film nerd out there in a chorus of “Welcome to Middle Earf!”

This is a film all about its setting; a world where a Lord of the Rings-style event took place thousand of years ago, and now the globe is populated primarily by orcs, humans and elves, with several other magical beings and entities making minor appearances. Orcs are the mistreated minority, humans are the majority population, and elves live in laps of luxury in gated communities. If you can’t see the parallels, watch Fox News for about half an hour, replace “African American community” with 0rcs, and you’re pretty much watching Bright‘s opening sequence. Jacoby, played by Joel Edgerton, is the nation’s first orcish police officer who is partnered with Ward, played by Will “The Mustache” Smith. Throw in a magic wand, a frazzled hyper-manic elf girl, some orc clan prophecy, and a shit load of gunfights, and you are pretty much up to speed.

Now, before I get too caught up in the film’s rather evident issues, allow me to point out which aspects are worth seeing. The effects are, overall, quite good when not relying too much on CGI. The orc faces, while visually unappealing, are at least pulled off convincingly and credit is given to Edgerton for delivering a recognisable and relatable performance underneath the prosthetics. When the bullets are flying and the rubber is burning, Bright is a decent kind of energetic goodness. As little as I might like Ayer’s brand of shakycam action, I appreciate he does what he does fairly well and has improved somewhat in that department since his last big feature, Suicide Squad. However, his efforts are effectively eviscerated by screenwriter Max Landis who yet again proves that he has a strangely inconsistent writing talent.

Notice how my first paragraph had a tonal shift quick enough to give you whiplash – that’s a fair representation of watching the film! Despite having a very fun starting concept, and a solid if bland overall story arc between the action beats, much like Suicide Squad, this film appears to have suffered mass amputation on the cutting room floor to augment what was already, I suspect, a lacking screenplay. Plot elements are introduced left, right and center in the first hour, most of which end up going nowhere, and whole swathes of relevant information as to the abilities of the various races and their politics are nowhere to be seen. The story attempts to blend the fantasy and police procedural elements as best it can, but the interchange is always jarring and leaves cracks in the story’s believability. This is the main problem with the orcs, taking what is represented as an ancient clan culture and marrying them to the stereotypes of a modern LA gang. It is simply bizarre. While it barely functions as a single sentence description, the actual execution of this idea comes across as stupid and, to my eyes, prejudiced.

Rarely have I seen such a relevant subject matter handled so poorly. The first half an hour almost plays like an in-company educational video on “diversity in the work place” with all the on-the-nose examples and painfully stilted dialogue that entails. When that terrible thirty-five minutes finally gives way to the film’s actual story, the problem becomes less obvious but is still very much present. If you want to see a film about police, race and still have a good time, watch Zootopia. That is in no way a joke since Zootopia kicks ass and handles the same general topics as Bright, but with much surer and less-awkward hands. Bright‘s social commentary is at best misguided, and at worst, insulting. It’s a film for adults which assumes that its audience has no conception of what racism is, and needs the gritty equivalent of an episode of Barney the Dinosaur to explain it.

My spleen well and truly vented, I think it’s fair to summarise that I wasn’t exactly a fan of this film. Once it finally got going and had some decent action scenes under its belt, I could at least tolerate it. But that opening, as well as a particularly hamfisted bathroom “Man-Talk”, takes some getting through. Edgerton does a decent job under what looks like quick-dry cement, whereas Smith is a bit of a letdown, never bringing even half of his available screen presence to the role. If you have a Netflix subscription and liked the Transformers films and their ilk, Bright may be worth a try. For everybody else, there really isn’t much point. Other films have explored the themes better, and this idea deserves a sleeker execution before we should all sit up and take notice. Netflix can, and has, done better than this. In short: watch Zootopia.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Given a budget of $90 million, this film is the most expensive Netflix movie investment to date.
  • Max Landis reportedly received $3.5 million for the screenplay, but could have received more if he hadn’t had stuck to his guns about David Ayer directing the film. Ayer’s End of Watch was a big influence on the script.
  • The orcish “love song” that Jakoby refers to is actually “Hammer Smashed Face” by Cannibal Corpse.
  • Will Smith’s character mentions Shrek in this movie. In the movie I Am Legend, another character played by Smith quotes a scene from Shrek.

Richard Herring

Half-American, half-Norwegian. All Engineer, amateur filmmaker, former Scuba Diver, qualified Forklift Operator, continual Stand Up Comedian, and Certified Cinephile.

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