There are so many appalling things about Bright that it’s hard to know where to start. Netflix’s most expensive original movie yet is a big ball of knotted-up awful, so many threads of insult and injury that finding a way into it is giving me a headache, much as the movie itself did. Just when I think I’ve pinned down the right example of idiocy to use as a launchpad for diving into the deep end of the dumb, I realize how I can’t even begin to explain that one nasty bit without explaining the dozen other related terrible tangents. The bad is so interconnected here, feeding on itself in a sort of negative feedback loop, coiling tighter and tighter into a singularity of stupid, and then it implodes in a big bang of toxic cinema. (It’s expanding! Netflix wants to turn this into a series. God help us.)
Perhaps the best place to start is to note that Bright opens by trolling the viewer. After the Netflix logo comes a card for “Trigger Warning Entertainment,” which may or may not be an actual production company, but is most definitely a taunt. All you snowflakes, you ain’t gonna be able to handle the massive dump of un-PC reality that is Bright! Even if it’s all fantasy, elves and orcs and magic wands and shit. You dorks can’t handle the make-believe.
I feel like it is an utter certainty, like that the sun will come up tomorrow and that Netflix’s monthly fees are going up in order to pay for this $90 million monstrosity, that screenwriter Max Landis pitched this as “Alien Nation meets Lord of the Rings,” and imagined that it would write itself. (Or perhaps it grew out of some LOTR–End of Watch crossover fanfic, and that’s how Watch director David Ayer, also of Suicide Squad infamy, got onboard.) What else do you need, really, except some elegant elves in Armani, thuggish orcs, and humans stuck in the middle with no choice but to be schmucks about it? I’m not sure that Landis or Ayer understand fantasy at all, beyond the laziest motifs and visual tropes; cheap condescension to fans of the genre drips from every moment of the movie. Just have everyone intone some crap like “The Dark Lord is coming, and the Shield of Light will stop him” and “I think we might be in a prophecy” and “Only a Bright can control the Power of the Wand,” mix it up with some racist Los Angeles cops, and hey presto, hardass edgelord Landis fails upward again with yet another script that doesn’t seem to have a clue how to tell a story that people would enjoy experiencing, but is most definitely dropping some uncomfortable home truths, losers. (His last two films, Victor Frankenstein and American Ultra, flopped miserably. How does he keep getting paid for his scripts?)
Bright is so atrocious that it makes me worry that the LAPD — the racist assholes of the Rampart and Rodney King scandals, among many others — is being depicted in an unfairly poor light here. There isn’t a single damn one of them in this alternate world who isn’t a corrupt, speciesist jerk who (among other crimes) hates orcs, and really hates the nation’s first orc cop, Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton: It Comes at Night, Midnight Special). (Apparently all the different species have been living together since forever, but civil rights seems to move slower here. It took till the 21st century for an orc to break into the thin blue line? Oops, there’s me getting triggered!) (Also: Why does Jakoby have such a human-sounding name?) Jakoby’s reluctant partner, Daryl Ward (Will Smith: Collateral Beauty, Concussion), is terrible too; his arc here involves him learning how to be slightly less of a garbage person, and only very reluctantly. (Smith’s seemingly indefatigable onscreen charms have finally met their match. There is no joy in watching him here.) It’s possible that the world of Bright is intended (though I doubt it) to be a dystopia in which everyone is a garbage person, because there’s no one to like or empathize with or enjoy spending time with or root for, not even in a “hey, aren’t they awful” sort of way. Even Jakoby, who is is surely meant to be sympathetic as the butt of relentless and clearly unreasonable bigotry, comes across as Forrest Gump-ish naive at best, just plain stupid at worst, someone whom it doesn’t seem unjust to dismiss as the “diversity hire” he’s frequently called.
Among the most egregious of the crimes against storytelling here is that Bright is a parable about racism yet is itself racist as fuck. (Triggered!) It’s racist about real kinds of people. The Mexican gangbangers are somehow the most gangbangerish clichés ever, and the slapped-on urban fantasy junk only makes it worse. “Word on the street is there’s a Wand in this hood,” one gang leader drawls. “My hood.” Ward informs his ghetto-tastic black neighbors that “fairy lives don’t matter today,” and then proceeds to beat to death the fairy that is making a nuisance of itself around their homes while they cheer him on. (I don’t think this is saying the thing about the Black Lives Matter movement that Landis thinks it is. Or maybe it is.) But the special achievement of Bright is that it is also racist about its invented races: it posits orcs as clannish goons, suited only to be a servant class at best, and elves as wealthy sophisticated snobs who lord it over everyone else. It posits these things by literally just depicting them, and not countering them in any way… except, possibly, if you squint, by suggesting that maybe a few atypical beings might just be the exception that proves the rule. Whatever the thing to say to orcs or elves that is the equivalent of “My, but you’re so articulate!”, Bright says it.
After you’ve suffered through all of that, plus some inane car chases and gun battles, plus an elf damsel in distress, plus the requisite scene set in a strip club to get some tits onscreen (human tits only; sorry), plus a Shrek reference, because it’s totally plausible that in this cruel world, Hollywood made a children’s cartoon about a gruff but lovable ogre, then comes the two things that will make you laugh out loud, and not in a good way. One is such an overused cliché that it almost seems to jeer at its own obviousness, a sneering, “Oh, come on, don’t complain, you knew that was coming!” The second is that as well, and worse. It’s such an absurd bit of magic ex machina that it seems to be the entire reason for the movie’s existence — to set up that threatened series — and yet it couldn’t be more cheap or cheaty.
The real fantasy of Bright is that anyone involved could have possibly imagined that this two-hour exercise in smirking, tone-deaf attempted pandering to genre fans was a good idea. Maybe someone used a confundo charm on them. It’s the only explanation.