With Bright, director David Ayer and writer Max Landis paint a grim picture. Orcs are a disgraced race carrying stigmas and shame wherever they walk. Fairies, the most delicate denizens of any fantasy world, are smacked out of the air like flies and left to die in the dirt in rundown neighborhoods. Elves sit at the tip-top of the social hierarchy, and magic-wielding beings known as “Brights” are lost to legend. It’s all compelling and exciting to think about—until the story kicks itself into gear and Landis’s script devolves into a chaotic action-adventure devoid of emotion and excitement.
Landis’s patchwork of half-realized characters and haphazard concepts pushes the film closer to American Ultra and farther from more inspired efforts such as Chronicle, which is disappointing considering how much potential Bright boasts. Touted as Netflix’s first blockbuster, the film feels like a script that was three or four drafts away from a solid picture, a promising premise bogged down by the ambitions of a cocky yet competent young writer.
Bright follows seasoned LAPD officer Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and his rookie partner, Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), as they navigate an ancient conflict brought about by a mysterious wand. Ward, a human, and Jakoby, an Orc, deal with vastly different problems. The former fights to keep his home, his family, and his reputation while the latter works tirelessly to prove himself in a society that shuts him down at every chance it gets. It’s an intriguing concept made even more exciting by a stacked cast and a high-profile writer/director duo, one that could have been more clearly realized with a bit more energy expended in the right places.
Landis attempts to mesh unabashed fantasy with uncompromising reality in a way that is both relevant and resonant. It doesn’t work as social commentary and it doesn’t work as a straight-up fantasy, so where does it fit in and where does Bright belong? While the answer isn’t ever made clear, one thing is certain: Landis’s honest, earnest approach to his story is both a refreshment for us and a remark to the dearth of original fantasy films currently available for consumption. He imbues his script with a grit, a gravity that adds a new dimension and a new depth to what could have been an exhausted fantasy.
There are hints and traces of a better film here; many of the interactions between Ward and Jakoby work on a level the rest of the movie can’t reach. The two boast a chemistry that feels organic, fun, and full of playful energy, qualities that could have benefitted what is largely a joyless ride through a world in which we don’t ever become invested.
Smith and Edgerton shine in their respective roles, providing a welcome glimmer of quality and proving that their chemistry is what keeps the film from crumbling. Edgar Ramirez, Noomi Rapace, and Jay Hernandez all appear in supporting roles, turning in serviceable performances but never quite managing to leave a lasting impression.
Ayer’s direction helps the story gain its life, but only feebly so. The world he builds around these characters and their problems fails to convince, and the characters and problems themselves don’t seem to warrant exploration, either. We don’t care about the social ramifications that accompany being an Orc. We don’t care that the dark elf Leilah (Rapace) thirsts for power and kills anyone brave enough to stand up to her. In fact, there’s not much at all to care for here, and that presents some obvious issues.
Ultimately, Bright seeks a balance it never strikes. Granted, Ayer and Landis had their work cut out for them going into this project, but the work feels incomplete. It’s as if the pair cut corners with their world-building and character development and expected the finished product to be anything but a shortcut. Concepts, such as the whole fairies-are-pests spin, are introduced and never brought up again, while the fights are hastily shot and of little consequence.
It’s a flawed, frustrating film made even more lackluster by its failure to explore its own weighty themes and its apparent refusal to connect those themes to its story and characters. Make no mistake about it, this is a boldly written, brazenly directed movie, and while that kind of confidence has both merit and a place in Hollywood, it doesn’t translate well here.
Bright may be a misfire, but it’s one that warrants a hard look and an open mind. There is something here; it’s just difficult to see exactly what that something is. Here’s to hoping its recently-announced sequel expands on its world in a more compelling fashion.