There's a Shrek joke delivered at just over the halfway mark in Bright that almost makes up for the movie being the cinematic embodiment of a busted, spewing sewage pipe.
Bright, streaming on Netflix now, is a fantastical retelling of social inequality in Los Angeles. The city is dominated by three races: the wealthy and elite elves, the middle-class and comfortable humans, and the detested orcs. After a war some 2,000 years ago leaves each race with an unhealthy disdain for the other races, an informal segregation has taken place. Things begin to change when Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first orc police officer inducted into the force through a diversity hire program, enters the scene.
When Jakoby is partnered with force veteran Daryl Ward (Will Smith), the two must overcome their prejudices to track down an evil, pureblood elf, Leila (Noomi Rapace), who wants to see the return of the Dark Lord and slaughter billions. With the help of a formerly evil elf, Tikka (Lucy Fry), Jakoby and Ward try to defeat the new threat facing their city, bridging together the divide between races in the process.
Director David Ayer and writer Max Landis’ Bright is bogged down by the shortcomings of their own ambitions. Landis’ attempt to weave a fantasy tale inspired by the real social injustices of society is impressive, but his efforts fail at every possible opportunity. The writer tries to massage warnings about racism, elitism, animal cruelty and other injustices into a movie that, ultimately, is nothing more than a couple of half-hearted actors running away from explosions.
Landis and Ayer try to turn Bright into a modern fantasy classic, using the differences that separate elf, human and orc as a way to mirror the injustices in our own world. There are scenes when it feels like Landis and Ayer may accomplish their goal, but then a throwaway joke is tossed into the mix and everything comes tumbling down, forcing the creative team to start rebuilding the shaky foundation of their metaphor.
Bright’s mishandling of sensitive topics that deserve to be handled with care is so mind boggling audacious that it quickly starts to feel like an insult to actual activism groups. There’s a scene at the beginning of Bright in which Smith’s all-American-bravado cop, Daryl Ward, is tasked with removing a pesky fairy hanging around his property. Fairies in the world of Bright are like mosquitos with personalities; hungry, menacing little creatures seen as a nuisance. Ward, broom in hand, prepares to kill the fairy, saying, “Fairy lives don’t matter today.”
It’s borderline insulting, but what makes watching Bright so painful is how obvious it is that Landis and Ayer are trying to do right by the wrongdoings they see. Bright tries to identify the biggest issues facing society today and start a dialogue, but in doing so creates more problematic conversations.
As The Daily Beast’s Ira Madison III said on Twitter, people “love making sci-fi movies with ‘allegories’ about race instead of making sci-fi movies about non-white people.”
Bright spends so much time on trying to be more clever than it actually is, that Ayer and Landis never take time to address the problems they set up. Problems faced by actual people of color in the movie, including Mexican-Americans who are still being treated poorly and black Angelenos who are forced live in dangerous pockets of inner-city LA, are ignored. Bright tries to use an allegorical approach to talk about race problems in America, but ignores actual issues faced by real humans in the movie. Even worse, it often feels like these groups are belittled or stereotyped in the process as a method of trying to make the ongoing war between orcs, elves and humans more prominent.
Landis and Ayer’s attempt to weave in actual socio-political statements about poverty and racism in America juxtaposed against the orcs and elves’ parable reads like ignorance over the treatment of actual people of color in favor of something less controversial. It’s not just disappointing and insulting, but it’s borderline dangerous. Bright’s mishandling of sensitive subjects seems to deliver a message: diversity hires are bad; police brutality is necessary; certain lives matter less than others.
Neither Landis or Ayer seem like they’re consciously trying to support that kind of ideology, but their reckless handling of important topics allows a sliver of space for people to read it this way. It’s disappointing that their goal of trying to make a movie condemning social injustice in general can be so easily misconstrued. Ironically, had Bright been successful in its ambitions, it could have been one of the most crucial films of 2017.
That’s why Bright is a difficult watch; its unfulfilled potential is painful to see play out. There are so many opportunities where it could have gone right, but it fails at almost every single turn.
The best thing Bright has going for it is Joel Edgerton’s performance as hardworking, bullied orc cop Jakoby. Edgerton manages to create an empathetic character with the little material he has to work with, and quickly becomes a beacon of hope for the movie. There’s genuine sadness for the prejudices he faces from his fellow officers and orcs, but he’s never given the proper chance to shine. His opportunity for greatness is squandered by an incessant need for Smith’s Ward to be the hero. Even in Edgerton’s best scene, it all comes undone because of a decision by other characters.
Bright could have been a great movie in the hands of people with expertise in allegorical storytelling and understanding of the subjects they wanted to tackle. Both Landis and Ayer bit off more than they could chew with Bright. Their attempt to create a movie of this perceived magnitude should be applauded, just like every creative willing to take a risk should — this just didn’t work out for them the way they’d hoped.
It’s a real shame, too. Bright could have been the optimistic first step we needed as we head into 2018, but instead it’s just a reminder of the world we’re a part of today.