Thursday, January 11, 2018

End of Binge: Netflix’s Bright

Will Smith and Joel Edgerton in Netflix's Bright. (Photo: Matt Kennedy/Netflix)

Netflix wants to dominate the movie market. They want you to stay home and watch their original programming – like Bright, a Los Angeles cop movie starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton – instead of leaving your couch and spending money at a multiplex. Bright is a big play for them, meant to be proof that their previous forays into original programming were just precursors to the main event: fresh big-budget blockbusters that you can watch from home. Netflix was convinced that this sure-fire hit, directed by David Ayer and written by Max Landis, would end this argument before it even began. Anyone who’s seen Bright will tell you that it . . . doesn’t do that.

Critic David Erlich, in his already infamous review for Indiewire, called Bright the worst film of 2017. I wouldn’t go that far, personally, but it’s easy to understand why he feels that way. Nothing about its premise, which depicts a modern L.A. inhabited by fantasy creatures like orcs, elves, centaurs, and dragons, is original or interesting. A tedious cop movie (a genre that should be a forte for Ayer, after his work on Training Day and End of Watch) dashes breathlessly through this confused, incoherent fantasy setting, neither element offering anything intriguing on its own or contributing in any meaningful way to the other. Bright is like a stodgy loaf of half-cooked dough, flavourless and devoid of useful nutrition. For Ayer, I suppose that counts as a step up for the man responsible for Suicide Squad?

Daryl Ward (a bizarrely soporific Will Smith) is an L.A. cop who has the rotten luck of being partnered up with Jakoby (an earnest Edgerton), the first Orcish police officer in the United States. Orcs, y’see, are second-class citizens in this version of our world. Elves, of course, represent the one percent. (Humans, I guess, are somewhere in the middle?) Ward and Jakoby don’t get along – Ward is resentful of being paired up with a pariah, and Jakoby doesn’t appreciate his new partner’s reluctance to find common ground – and this wacky odd couple is tossed into the midst of a nefarious plot by an evil elven woman (Noomi Rapace) to find and kill another elven woman (Lucy Fry) and take the magic wand she’s carrying with her. (The film’s title refers to the rare individuals who can wield such a weapon without inadvertently killing themselves.) If it sounds like I’m being vague, I promise it’s not on purpose; Bright offers such thin characterization, such derivative storytelling, and such painful dialogue that it’s almost impossible not to disengage from it. This results in an incredibly stupefying experience, as the characters snark and shout and shoot their way through a story that offers nothing any of us haven’t seen a million times already (and nearly always done better, to boot). There’s some kind of backstory involving an ancient war that split the world’s races apart, a “Dark Lord,” and a capital-P Prophecy, but it’s exactly as unengaging as it sounds, and plays into the story and its characters in no way that I was able to discern.

Max Landis adopts an extremely irritating affect in his public persona, which shouldn’t have an influence on his work as a screenwriter, or my response to that work. But with Bright, it’s very difficult to separate the art from the artist. Landis comes off like a man whose brazen self-importance is either oblivious or ironic (or possibly both, as demonstrated recently by this now-deleted tweet), and the screenplay for Bright rings with the same sense of sheltered arrogance he displays on a constant basis. Characters make dire pronouncements about Dark Lords and Magic Wands and Elven Councils as though those words aren’t strange and incongruous within the film’s own setting. The leads spout action-movie clichés with straight faces, as if they’re waiting for Ayer to redeem them with some kind of clever subversion in tone or execution that never made it into the final cut. Landis seems like the kid from high school who acts out just to get attention, daring you to chortle at the awkward, pointless juxtaposition he makes between Latinx gangsters and Harry Potter magic, and laughing hysterically when you just shrug and ignore him instead. And this is all to say nothing of Bright’s utterly reckless and wrong-headed racial elements (typified by Ward saying, “Fairy lives don’t matter today” before bludgeoning one to death), which never coalesce into anything relevant and only add another, very ugly misfire to the film’s pile of misguided choices. Landis is slowly but surely building a body of work as insufferable as he is, which at this point is low on the list of reasons to censure him.

I didn’t watch Bright out of interest in the film itself, but rather the surprisingly fiery discussion surrounding it. I had hoped – as I do going into every film – that the movie would captivate me, or, at the very least, make a compelling case for its existence beyond a cynical grab for movie market share. But its intentions are as naked and callow as its social commentary. The fact that Netflix hung their hopes for this big Hail Mary play on a risky, racially charged story and questionable creators like Ayer, Landis, and Smith is disappointing, given the relative quality of some of their other original content – but, paradoxically, it might also be the best argument in their favour. If Netflix really wants to take over Hollywood, and behave just like the big studios do . . . then Bright is proof that they’re already well on their way.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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