Sci-fi and fantasy as genres have, historically, not done well by minority groups. Bright, despite lofty ambitions to shine a light on conflict between the separate social groups in Los Angeles, does not offer much improvement.
The Netflix Original was directed by David Ayer, whose previous hits include Suicide Squad, and written by Max Landis, who has recently been accused of being another one of Hollywood’s sexual predators. It stars Will Smith as an experienced LA beat cop called Daryl Ward and Joel Edgerton as his partner, Nick Jakoby, the city’s first ever orc to become a police officer.
The movie is an explicit allegory for racial tension in LA. It even includes a variety of existing ethnic groups and references their real world struggles, alongside the orcs and elves and fairies that have been planted into the city.
Bright tries to achieve a lot in doing this. It attempts to rewrite history to include a war between humans, elves and orcs that raged for thousands of years, but still resulting in LA looking roughly the same as it does in reality. The conflict of the film is based on the two protagonists getting sucked into the residual friction between the three races in the aftermath of the war.
The FBI believe that Jakoby is more loyal to his race than to his job and offer Ward cash to get him to admit it on tape. Meanwhile, the two of them arrest a man who is a part of a fringe militant group called the Shield of Light, which aims to bring a mysterious Dark Lord to power. When a magic wand comes into their possession, they get caught up in the crimes of gangs, magical terrorists and corruption within the police hierarchy.
This leaves the film with a lot to achieve in a relatively short space of time.
Bright could have easily made a mini-series just out of the lore of the world and establishing how Ward and Jakoby got to their positions at the very beginning of the movie. Cramming it, along with the development of a number of characters and the social frictions caused by having magical creatures in a big city, is a lot to fit into just 188 minutes.
Pretty much all the problems with this film can be boiled down to it being rushed. If it took more time to develop the world, characters and story, perhaps it could have reached its ambitious goals. As it is, all the most interesting things about the film are left half explained.
The long history between orcs, elves and humans is only vaguely referenced. You don’t get much of an idea of what the war was like and the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. A lot of characters talk at length about how even the most advanced human weaponry can’t stand up to magical warfare – and yet somehow the war raged on for thousands of years.
It’s also not entirely clear how magic works in this world. Again, the audience is given scraps of information but never a complete picture. It is never fully explained how the magic wand works. It is inherently magical, and explodes when a non-magical person touches it, can be used by anyone, but also has a specific owner.
The wand’s existence drives the story by simply being in the possession of the protagonists. It is coveted by almost every group in the criminal underbelly of LA and becomes conveniently useful and explosive in dire situations. People want it because they think it will fix all their problems, but it also has the capacity to kill everyone in an instant. This is not enough for it to be so central to the plot.
The protagonists have to get this macguffin to somewhere safe, while being threatened by their colleagues and hunted by criminal gangs of humans, elves and orcs alike. It is these gangs that are at the core of the film’s main problems.
It attempts to offer social commentary about the friction between classes and ethnic groups in contemporary America. It doesn’t replace existing minorities, which is at least an improvement on the kind of traditional fantasy that erases all but a single generic race of human altogether.
Instead, it adds orcs, elves and other fantastical creatures into a recognisable modern day LA. If Bright had given more time for this status quo to be explored, it might not have drawn as much harsh criticism as it did.
Despite the fact that elves and orcs were equally warring against humanity, orcs have been pushed into the underbelly of society, while elves are revered as the social elite.
This gives the upper classes of the real world the opportunity to identify with a breed of beautiful, elegant, powerful creatures (with notably pale skin), while minorities are givens orcs as their representation – a brutal creature famously formed of evil incarnate. This doesn’t do any favours for people of marginalised groups watching this film, who only ever get to see their experiences of the world portrayed through ugly and violent monsters, rather than well-developed human beings.
As urban fantasy, the concept of a magical war lasting thousands of years resulting in a recognisable world is definitely interesting. But it has not been well written. Most characters are uncomfortably two dimensional – from the crooked cops, to the Mexican gang lord, even to the marginalised rookie.
This goes double for the female characters, who are few and far between and usually clichés. If they’re not a basic stock character (such as the terrified, silent kidnap victim and the sexily dangerous assassin), they’re background decoration.
The fact that this film was specifically written with its social commentary in mind is what makes the clumsy racial allegory so disappointing. It also likely didn’t help that they cast a straight, white male in the role of the oppressed character. Joel Edgerton is a fine actor, but he’s not a casting choice that is exactly going to appeal to a minority audience.
Bright falls into all the most common pitfalls of fantasy that draws parallels between fictional and existing social conflict, but it didn’t need to. An attempt was evidently made, between having a black (albeit heterosexual male) lead and as many elf villains as orcs. Generally, the film was structured in such a way, that with a bit of good character development and nuance within the status quo, it could have done everything it set out to do. However, its poor writing left it stranded way short of the mark.
Despite this, Netflix has already commissioned a sequel. But that, again, isn’t a huge surprise. It’s a big budget movie with the effects to prove it. There is no denying that the film looks good. The cinematography is really well done across the board.
The elves are designed with very intricate detail, simultaneously blending into human society and identifiable through their elegance and subtle physical differences, like their pointed ears and long shining hair. The orcs are even better, with stunning latex masks that show emotion as convincingly as any other character.
Between the effects and the explosions, there are plenty of aspects of this film that are genuinely entertaining and there have certainly been worse films released in the past year.
Ultimately though, the film was set a goal that writer Max Landis just couldn’t reach. Perhaps the sequel might not be as problematic, if the creators take into account the criticism the original has received and don’t try to hide the flaws in the writing with fancier effects.
There is a world here with a wealth of interesting stories and scenarios to explore. Perhaps Netflix just needs to be more thoughtful in how it goes about it.