Easily distinguished humanoids take refuge in Los Angeles, and at every moment are met with hostility, distrust, and nearly cartoonish racism, even from coworkers. Then, a case lands in the laps of one of these humanoids and their “normal” human partner, causing their relationship and partnership to be forged in the fire of their detective work.
You’d be easily forgiven for thinking I’m describing Alien Nation, and not David Ayer’s latest film, Bright, written by Chronicle’s scribe. Honestly, if you were to suspect the writer of Victor Frankenstein wrote this while watching Alien Nation and keeping a sourcebook for the tabletop role-playing game Shadowrun open, you’d find a good bit of similarities.
Bright’s script tries to fig leaf any similarities, in maintaining that fantasy races such as elves, orcs, fairies and centaurs all found their way to our world over 2,000 years ago. However, at no point does the world presented in Bright re-contextualize any of the world’s history since that point as being affected by the literal fantastic beings present in parallel with the events that have unfolded. That fact is even brought to the audience’s attention by county sheriff’s deputy Rodriguez (Jay Hernandez) sympathizing with the United States’ first orc police officer (Joel Edgerton) over racism, claiming “his people are still blamed for the Alamo.”
The story plays out as though these races were just plugged in where stereotypes would be otherwise, to the point that all elves, as portrayed, are high class, untouchable aristocrats of the top 1%, orcs are either Los Angeles African American or Latino communities depending on the need of the script, and fairies are barely sentient pests that can be murdered in broad daylight while Will Smith says their “lives don’t matter today.” The races are all talked about as isolated monoliths within existing American culture, but they all have names that you could conceivably find real world humans using.
In short, this movie is a fucking mess.
Will Smith plays Daryl Ward as charismatically as he can bring to bear, despite the racism in his character that strains the relationship with Joel Edgerton’s Nick Jacoby. Smith’s charisma just can’t carry as much as the film winds up requiring of him. Jacoby himself is written as a fairly green rookie cop, who just dreamed of being on the force one day, and Edgerton tries to play the character with the pathos of someone caught between duty and heritage. But the story doesn’t serve it well at all. From the moment aspects of the orc culture are introduced, it’s plainly telegraphed how they’ll come back into play later.
If Ayer’s direction could’ve pumped some life into the action scenes, it might at least be worth it for the spectacle. But on the screen, it feels as though the entirety of the budget were used to render the CG magic wand MacGuffin that drives the story along. In watching Bright, one can practically tick off a list of scenes, storylines, and dramatic conceits from better movie that have been lifted and bolted into place.
The contextualization of the story’s world is what grates the most, here—humans, by all accounts in the film, are only racist toward orcs and fairies; distrustful of the elvish upper class, and apparently okay with working alongside centaurs. But with how little in the world has changed on account of the other races’ existence, and how history has apparently developed just as it has in our world, there is zero comment on the track record of racism throughout that history between humans.
Not to harp on the comparison, but even Alien Nation, both film and television series, reflected on how both humans and Newcomers were horrible not only to each other, but within their own communities, and how that friction affected their lives. Bright doesn’t bother.
Let me be clear: I’m not someone who dislikes Ayer out of hand, nor Smith or Edgerton. Ayer’s filmography is spotty, at best, but there are moments in his films that can be very enjoyable due to his direction of actors (all the scenes in the tank from Fury come to mind). Will Smith and Joel Edgerton both excel in other roles, in some cases carrying a movie on their shoulders alone. None of the three acquit themselves very well in Bright, and every issue goes back to the leaden script.
In the end, I cannot recommend Bright to anyone.