This essay is something I don’t usually do, which is dunk on things I don’t like. I try to frame things in terms of why I do like them or what I want them to become. But I wrote this one as a supplement to my blog on imaginary people. I did so not because this piece is at all timely, but because a good friend skilled in literary criticism, and a former colleague at Paizo, Jason Tondro asked me why I’m on about Bright in that imaginary-people post. And listen, please, if you haven’t seen Bright, don’t bother. The Rotten Tomatoes consensus says, “Bright tries to blend fantasy, hard-hitting cop drama, and social commentary—and ends up falling painfully short of the mark on all three fronts.” That’s generous.
I was vaguely aware of the critical take on Bright, but I didn’t pay much heed. I had already seen it. My take on Bright is simple. It’s one of the few films I’ve watched where friends and I looked at one another afterward and simultaneously said, “Yikes!” I recommend against it for more reasons than that it’s merely bad. In watching Bright, you might risk telling Netflix to make similar drivel. It’s too late, though. Variety reported that Nielsen ratings had Bright at 11 million viewers in the first three days. Another Variety article reported that Netflix’s CEO, Reed Hastings, said critics were “disconnected for bashing” Bright.
It’s hard to say how successful Bright was, though. If Bright had been in theaters, then its opening weekend would likely have topped $100 million. That figure means it would have easily made back its budget. But it’s unclear that Netflix saw such a benefit. Raw viewer numbers are what matter, apparently. According to Hastings, the message from the movie’s “mass appeal” is already sent. And so, if you want to watch Bright, go ahead. Bright 2 is coming.
If you’re one of those who sets the bar at purely escapist fantasy for your entertainment, Bright might be an “escapist” way to spend two hours. I recommend choosing another escape. But if you’re one of those no-politics folks, Bright is going to offend you without also being a good fantasy, a good cop drama, or even a good story. That’s because the critics and their consensus are more than correct. That 11 million people saw Bright in the first three days in our bean-counter world might please a CEO, but it doesn’t say anything about its quality as a piece of fiction. And take it from me, despite the fact that Netflix has made some other wonderful content, Bright is terrible.
And then, this…
Netflix’s Bright is made in part by some company called Trigger Warning Entertainment. Just in case literally everything else about the film wasn’t a big enough warning to you.
I’ve made that “terrible” claim several times now. At Jason’s request, and because I should defend my claim, I’ll tell you why I’m on about Bright, especially with reference to that imaginary people post. I’m not going to worry about spoiling Bright here. It’s from 2017. Either you’ve seen it or you’re not going to, except maybe out of morbid curiosity I’m about to arouse in you.
In Bright’s setting, several fantasy species live in a classist hierarchy, sometimes literally segregated, with the orcs at the bottom. Why? Well, they’re ugly and ill-mannered brutes. Former soldiers of evil, you see. In a “clever” reversal on the USA’s centuries of chattel slavery and its repercussions, orcs served a millennia-gone Dark Lord. (He was, apparently, an elf. But elves are tops! Why? Well… they are graceful, strong, and beautiful. As one character says, “Because elves are awesome, right?”) Orcs are blatantly coded as people of color in this film—dress, culture, socio-economic status, police treatment… full stop. Most of the fiction hinges on this racism. Orcs lift trucks because, you know, they’re “strong.” An internal affairs officer says orcs are defensive linemen in NFL rather than NBA jump shooters because of “physics, not racism.” Orcs have a mottled skin tone, light and dark, which was a new idea in 1969’s Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”—but taken with everything else in Bright, it might be a little much. That’s the social commentary in this film. It’s all that ham-handed.
Equally trite is the treatment of Jakoby, a major character and orc police officer, as well as the first orc on the force anywhere. But he suffers brazen racism from his partner and other police officers, ostracism and classism from orcs (he’s not blooded or clanned, you see), along with disrespect from the community based solely on his species and their misdeeds, which I remind you, are 2,000 years in the past. He gets more disrespect because he’s a cop. His characterization often shows him to have more humanity than his partner. But that depiction doesn’t rise above the fact that so much about this story hinges on the racism. Cops ask Jakoby if an orc perp is his cousin, they call him a “diversity hire,” and one cop says, “I’ll drop an orc. […] My ancestors killed them by the… thousands in Russia.” My. Ancestors.
Shadowrun had better takes on metahuman politics at first publication in 1989.
But the problems aren’t all fantasy. Will Smith’s appearance as a Black police officer named Ward is another sledgehammer message about racism. The portrayal lacks any subtlety, from Ward’s profession to his personal life, from his actions to his relationship to Jakoby and all orcs. All potential criminals for that matter. It’s another “clever” take, using a Black American in juxtaposition to imaginary people, including Jakoby, coded as people of color. And during an interaction with Ward’s neighbors, who he calls “gangstas” while implying their existence harms his chance of selling his house, one of Smith’s lines in the film is, “Fairy lives don’t matter today.” (See the trailer below at 1:39.) Ward is a racist, classist cop caricature. So are many of the other humans in this story, from gang members to bad cops. And maybe Ward’s characterization is meant to be anti-police, but it doesn’t work. And it isn’t “clever” to use a beloved and skilled Black actor such as Smith to make this “social commentary.” Taken as a whole, the portrayal of Ward and humans in this film is shallow and more than a little perverse.
Cop-story banalities are rife, too. Ward has five years until retirement. He doesn’t want to screw up his pension. His wife, Sherri, is an ER nurse, amping up the “I don’t want you to get shot” police-story formula to eleven. And Sherri talks to the couple’s daughter. Sophia, about how orcs are dumb and how Jakoby is going to her dad killed. Sophia later asks, “Why do you have to be a policeman. Everyone hates them.” A minor plot point is that Internal Affairs wants Ward to get Jakoby to admit he’s more loyal to orcs than the police, so the LAPD has grounds to fire Jakoby. When the cops find a magic wand, they talk about how they could get anything they want with it, like bad cops standing around a shrink-wrapped pallet stacked with a drug lord’s cash.
“That’s magic right there. That’s whatever you want,” says one. This officer is the same one who talked about his ancestors earlier. He’s a bad cop, see? But this line occurs right before every cop on the scene tries to talk Ward into taking the magic wand, murdering Jakoby, and covering it up. Then they try to kill Ward, too. But it’s not only bad cops. The good cop with the huge family, revealed early in the run time, gets killed trying to help the protagonists. It’s like the writing follows a list, and a lot of that list was made by cribbing events in the late 19th or early 20th century.
And this brief analysis doesn’t get into how Bright is full of fantasy clichés, and not in the good way some fantasies can use those tropes. A defeated Dark Lord (monolithic evil, check), orc foot soldiers (ugly and savage people easy to objectify and kill, check), an ancient prophecy (predicting the story, check), ancient folk hero (mirroring parts of this story, check) a magic wand (weird artifact McGuffin, check) that only someone born with magical power (a Bright) can control (bioessential magic, check), the enigmatic elf waif who is that person (childlike and meaninglessly mysterious protagonist, check), magic healing pools (shaped like crosses [?], check). And the main bad guys are a faction of elves called the Inferni. They, of course, want to bring back the Dark Lord. “…so he can slaughter billions and enslave the survivors to serve him in a new age of magic.”
The wand is essential to this scheme in a way that’s never explained. That lack raises the question of why this artifact wasn’t used long before the events of Bright? Why? Well, obviously, because if it had, Bright would have been quite a different movie. The wand is a necessary part of the formula. This series of points reads and plays like another checklist. Or, gods help us, a Hero’s Journey checklist. At one point, when Ward waxes sensible about getting elf waif to the hospital, Jakoby says (of the healing pools), “We have to go back. There’s nothing ahead of us.” Is he literally heralding “the Return” or what? The climax takes place where the rising action began. The Journey, if it applies here, is another formula.
But formula belies the bumbling way other aspects of the story emerge. In Bright, the US has a federal Magic Task Force. An underground, extremist faction that uses magic is called the Shield of Light. When agents from the MTF interview an arrestee from the SoL (!), the arrestee explains how magic works to the agents. Because you gotta get that sweet exposition in there somehow. Why not have two characters who both know the lore confirm it with each other in detail as a way to tell the audience? And make no mistake, the feds are in this story as the foil you expect them to be. They’re a stabilizing force in a world of rampant crime and criminal cops. These feds are chasers, exposition givers, and potential redeemers. They’re also there to accept lies told by the protagonists at the end to cover up the true story. Why would they, given what they know? Who cares!
That sarcasm has less bite when you realize the feds are unnecessary to the story. A conceit given to us early in the film is that Brights, folks who can use magic, are rare. They’re most common among elves (awesome!). Among humans, one in a million. And the Great Prophecy for this story says, “Only a Bright can control the Power of the Wand.” I wonder who that Bright ends up being in this story?
I could go on. And I’ll admit that Bright has some interesting moments, but many of the preceding examples are from the first half of the movie. It doesn’t get better. Bright plays as if someone mashed together lists of story elements they learned by skimming the basics from genres and issues the movie is about. This film is a sophisticated take on none of its elements. The Rotten Tomatoes consensus is right but, as I said, generous. In skimming the surface of the rich, deep ponds of fantasy, social commentary, good storytelling, and even cop drama, Bright comes away with mostly scum.
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