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Why Bright can never be Star Wars: Its world makes no sense

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The problem of changing everything without changing much

Bright - Daryl and Nick investigate a building at night
LAPD officers Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) and Daryl Ward (Will Smith) in Bright.
Netflix

In 2015, after he finished writing the screenplay for Bright, writer Max Landis announced on Twitter that he believed he’d written his Star Wars. He later deleted the tweet, in what may have been an expression of disappointment in the film that director David Ayer and Netflix made out of his story.

Bright is unambiguously not Star Wars. In addition to having a much tighter narrative than anything Landis has ever written or Ayer has ever directed, Star Wars establishes a setting that is endlessly fascinating, filled with strange alien civilizations, ancient orders of warrior monks, gangsters and smugglers.

That franchise has endured for 40 years and spawned hundreds of ancillary works exploring its various facets because fans are obsessed with the galaxy George Lucas created, and the fiction holds up to that obsession and rewards it.

This falls apart when you look at Bright. The problem of fantastical concepts completely reshaping history in far-reaching ways is a major reason why most fantasy stories take place in alternate worlds whose history can be shaped by those fantastical concepts. You can’t introduce something as huge as magic and then say the vast majority of your fictional world is exactly the same as ours.

Bright has no hidden depths. It’s more like a movie set: facades with nothing behind them and a horizon that’s really just a matte painting. The fiction unravels if you think about this setting for even a little bit.

Alternate history without the alternatives

Bright proposes a couple of radical changes to the history of Earth. First of all, humanity shares the planet with elves and orcs.

Secondly, magic is real, and it was used to build the pyramids. According to a featurette that Netflix produced explaining the backstory of Bright, a powerful wizard named the Dark Lord tried to conquer the world in the 21st century B.C., but was stopped by an Orc named Jirak who was gifted with the rare ability to wield a magic wand.

That’s a huge “what if?” scenario, but Landis and Ayer really whiffed on the “and then ...” They didn’t seem to have any interest in delving into the consequences of the changes they’d made to history.

Bright takes place in a world that seems to be a little ritzier in the rich elf neighborhoods, and a little grungier in the places where orcs and humans live, but it’s obviously Los Angeles in the present day.

What about Jesus?

Perhaps the biggest change that would happen in this world is one that’s barely remarked on. Modern Christianity, as it exists today, is all but impossible in the world of Bright.

The featurette about the history of Bright dates the war against the Dark Lord to 2109 B.C., and therefore, uses the birth of Jesus Christ as the start of the modern era. But it’s not clear how Jesus fits into the fiction of Bright.

A magic wand, in this world, is “a nuclear bomb that grants wishes.” As one character explains it, magic is “whatever you want. You want a million dollars? You want ten million? You want to be taller or shorter? Or make your dick bigger? You want to go back in time and marry the girl who didn’t blow you on prom night? That’s how you do it, right there.”

The fiction is pretty vague on how many of these bombs exist, outside of hints of their rarity and the fact that only special “bright” people have the power to even touch them without exploding. In the movie, a magic wand is able to raise the dead. It seems to offer unlimited power.

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus proved his divinity in large part by healing the blind and the sick, turning water into wine, miraculously feeding a multitude of people with only a few loaves of bread and several fish, walking on water, raising the dead, and ultimately, by resurrecting and ascending to heaven three days after he was crucified.

Within a context of an alternate history in which all of Jesus’ miracles could have been performed by any number of wizards, it’s difficult to see how Christianity would ever arise in the world of Bright. There wouldn’t be a question about whether the historical Jesus is the son of God, since everyone would just assume he was a bright. They’re rare, but they aren’t unknown in this world.

Bright fails to consider is how completely different the last two thousand years of human history would be without Christianity or the Catholic Church. For much of history, monarchs claimed to rule by divine right; thus, political legitimacy flowed from the church. Spreading Christianity was a motive for exploration, Crusades and colonialism. Without the church, there would’ve been no Renaissance.

Many of the early British colonists in North America were motivated to immigrate here because they belonged to minority sects of Christianity, and wanted to be free to practice their faith without persecution.

Christianity was a justification for many historical atrocities as well; white Christians rationalized the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans in part because they did not view these groups as Christian, and saw their subjugation as virtuous — because it meant that they could forcibly convert these people to Christianity.

It seems like it would make sense that, in the fiction of Bright, the power held by the church and by kings would instead be held by the people who can wield the magic wands. But if that were true, then basically nothing could possibly be the same in Bright as it is in our world. The possibility of an alternate timeline in which Christianity never existed is fascinating, because the church’s influence is so monumental that its absence changes almost everything in human history.

There’s a reason that fantasy stories set on a contemporary world similar to our own usually tend to keep their fantastical elements hidden from the ordinary world, as in Harry Potter, or make the emergence of magic a relatively recent development. Most of Bright’s problems could be solved if the orcs and elves had, say, arrived en masse a hundred or so years ago from another dimension.

But Bright just mashes fantasy into a real-world setting without considering or exploring the implications of how its changes reshape history.

For example, throughout much of Bright, the Los Angeles Police Department officers played by Will Smith and Joel Edgerton are pursued by a group of stereotypical Mexican-American gangsters who want to use the magic wand to heal their paraplegic leader. But why, in the world of Bright, would these gangsters even exist?

Think about the preconditions and the history that give rise to our pop culture conception, much less the reality, of Mexican gangs: How and why, given the absence of the Catholic Church and the presence of powerful wizards, does Spain still conquer and colonize what is today Mexico?

If the Aztecs had their own magic wands, couldn’t they have fought off the conquistadors? And if Spain had wizards who could conjure all the wealth the country could ever need, why would it bother sending explorers searching for trade routes? Why would it need to establish foreign colonies? How might present-day Mexico be different if it had never been Hispanic or Catholic?

It would certainly be possible to imagine a world where magic exists still resembling a contemporary society. Landis or Ayer could have started with the setting they wanted for their story, and then worked backward to build out a world where their story fits. For example, it might have made more sense to have magic emerge after the rise of the Catholic Church.

If the church controlled the wands in that world, its history might take a more recognizable shape. The creators of most popular fantasy worlds really went into the weeds and figured out this kind of stuff, and then crafted their plots and characters on top of their world-building. But Landis and Ayer didn’t bother with that. Their story seems to have been sold on the concept of an orc cop, and there’s nothing underneath it.

Bright’s backstory makes no sense in a modern setting, either

Even if you ignore the fact that a backstory that obliterates Christianity renders European and American history unrecognizable, the rules that the characters in Bright operate under still make no sense in a contemporary setting.

Here’s my favorite dumb thing I learned from the dumb featurette explaining the dumb history of this dumb movie:

In the 18th century, according to the featurette, “Global leaders joined hands to officially outlaw magic, and enacted strict punishment for those found practicing.” This raises a lot of questions. First of all, how do you punish an all-powerful wizard? Secondly, if the person who violates the ban is themselves a “global leader” and controls the mechanisms of the state, what means exist to punish them?

And if the “magic wands” are in the hands of monarchs who have sworn not to use them, what possible “strict punishment” could deter them from deploying these weapons, for example, during events like the French Revolution, when the royal family and much of the aristocracy were executed by guillotine? Would Tsar Nicholas II have abdicated his position as emperor of the Russian Empire — a title that eventually resulted in the execution of his entire family — if he had a magic wand in his back pocket?

And even if leaders who had agreed to this ban had abided by it in the face of death, why would successive regimes that revolted against the leaders who had made these deals feel bound by them?

Moving into the 20th century, the featurette explains that after the United States used nuclear weapons to end World War II in 1945, the nuclear bombs were suspected of being created using a magic wand. As a result, a “magic task force was created to monitor global magic practice.”

Bright - Nick Jakoby holding a rifle with human LAPD officers behind him Netflix

This featurette is a master class in using the passive voice to try to hide giant holes in the narrative. Who suspected that nukes were created with magic? Who created the task force? And what could this task force do if it turned out that FDR had, in fact, ordered the development of magic nuclear bombs? How could a task force even investigate this without the consent of the U.S. government?

Also: Somebody just used a nuclear bomb, and the main global concern is the possibility that the nuclear bomb might be magic?

Adolf Hitler — who was literally Hitler — almost certainly had access to wands, since the Nazis conquered most of continental Europe before they were pushed back and defeated. The Nazis not only committed genocide; they developed industrial systems in order to commit genocide on a previously unimaginable scale. Hitler conscripted children and old men as cannon fodder to defend his regime during his desperate last stand. This guy, our pop culture shorthand for the worst evil possible, would have abided by the anti-magic treaties?

When you posit an object like the magic wand in Bright, the idea that governments or armed forces would want to use it as a weapon is, perhaps, the most obvious narrative thread that follows from the existence of that thing. When you posit that those magic wands have been around for 5,000 years, it’s impossible to imagine that the destructive power of that magic wouldn’t have shaped warfare throughout history.

When you’re doing a movie about cops who are trying to police a world that contains these elements, one of the obvious problems becomes the difficulty in imposing the rule of law on people who have this kind of power. Bright doesn’t consider those implications, let alone the implications of international organizations trying to restrict the use of this power by state actors.

Most likely, the history presented in the featurette is just a retroactive explanation of why a character in the film describes a magic wand as “a nuclear bomb that grants wishes” — which raises the obvious question of why anyone would invent a nuclear bomb in a world where magic wands already exist.

That’s of a piece with the movie: shallow, slapdash and ill-considered. And, as Ayer and Netflix try to turn Bright into a franchise, they’re stuck with a narrative mess that will be difficult to retroactively shape into something vibrant, interesting or durable.

Not everything needs to be explained, but it needs to be coherent

Of course, Bright, which is a buddy-cop movie about Will Smith and an orc, doesn’t need to include an alternate history of Mexico or demonstrate how magic influenced the Russian Revolution. The unexplained history and culture of a sci-fi/fantasy franchise are better left for comic books, tie-in novels and video games.

But there aren’t going to be any of those things for Bright, because there isn’t an audience that cares enough about it to want to delve into stuff like that. Where marquee genre franchises like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire have unexplored depths, Bright just has plot holes. It is never more substantial than its high-concept elevator pitch.

Another Will Smith franchise actually provides a master class in how to handle this sort of situation. The Men in Black films are littered with asides and jokes that explain how aliens and the police force that controls their influence on Earth have impacted real-world events, people and places. They care enough to explain small parts of the larger world they’ve created.

With Will Smith’s star power and an unusually high budget for a straight-to-streaming production, Bright is a decent thing to halfway pay attention to while you’re looking at your phone. But it will never be anyone’s Star Wars.