More noise than signal


Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Netflix are no stranger to film production, of course, but it’s largely focused on low to mid budget dramas and comedies. Given that the distribution model is so different from the usual cinema / studio relationship, it’s hard to know if that’s been a huge success economically, but they’ve had more than a few critical successes like Beasts of No Nation and Okja. That said, they’re also funding Adam Sandler movies, so there’s no clear indication of which side of the fence their first big budget, effects heavy blockbuster attempt, Bright would fall.

And lo, it appeared, and critics loathed it. But Neflix can move a lot of eyeballs in a particular direction if it wants to, and just you try and avoid an ad for this film on logging in to Netflix since its release. I presume, given that they’ve announced plans for a sequel, it hit its engaugement metrics or whatever makes a Netflix-only film a success, but the more interesting metric for us is that audience reviews were, on the whole, quite positive. Curious.

The truth may be between those poles, but that’s getting ahead of myself. The essential conceit of Bright is that, basically, The Lord of the Rings was a historical documentary rather than a work of fiction. A Dark Lord rose to power but was overthrown by an allied force of humans, elves and rebel orcs. However, unlike Tolkien’s works, the other races did not decide to leave the picture. Elves stick around as the 1%, a pointy-eared elite, while orcs form a permanent underclass, still loathed for their backing of the baddies millenia ago. Humans are, in theory at least, sandwiched inbetween, although it seems there’s just as much inequality between the humans and the elite in this world as there is in ours.

Will Smith’s Daryl Ward is an LAPD officer who’s dismayed to be lumbered with a new partner, Joel Edgerton’s Nick Jakoby, the first orc copper. He’s forced to overcome his prejudices when, after some world-building preamble, they respond to a call to what turns out to be some sort of safehouse that turned out not to be all that safe, given the number of people turned inside out in it. Evidence points to the use of magic, presumed to have faded from the world, and indeed a magic wand turns up, a very rare and very powerful item, along with a dazed elvish survivor, Lucy Fry’s Tikka. It is unclear what overall percentage of elves are named after Indian food.

Unfortunately, no matter what multiverse you are in, the one constant is that the LAPD are staggeringly corrupt, so the backup Ward has called in decide they’d rather kill Ward and Jakoby and take the wand for themselves. This earns them all lead salads, but this does mean that Ward and Jakoby must go on the lam through a hostile Los Angeles with the wand and Tikka, chased by the cops, local gangs both orc and human, and most pressingly Noomi Rapace’s Leilah and her elite elf goons, looking to reclaim their wand in order to resurrect the Dark Lord.

So, a buddy cop cum chase film with a Dungeons and Dragons skin, then. Indeed, divested of all the fantasy trappings, this is a slender narrative indeed, but still one that’s just about up to the task of upholding the action sequences and partner banter that you’d expect from something plucked from the late eighties to early nineties, just with one of said partners under a tonne of makeup.

Director David Ayers keeps things moving along well enough, after an arguably touch too slow opening act, but, well, there is a decent amount of world-building exposition that necessarily needs to be front loaded, so I’ll forgive that. Thankfuly, overall it hews right up the middle between the Ayers penned Training Day (with which you could argue it shares some DNA) and the Ayers helmed Suicide Squad, the least said of which the better. Still, it must be said – there’s more than a few problems with Bright, more or less entirely from Max Landis’ script.

Oh dear. Max Landis. You know there’s some people you hear bad things about and think, “he just doesn’t seem the type”? Doesn’t apply to Landis. He very much seems the type, and seems to have gone to ground since sexual abuse allegations were levelled against him. It seems clear that Landis is a right old toley and no mistake, and some will want to boycott all thing associated with him. An understandable position, and looking through his IMDB page, you’re not missing out on much. But, in the interests of seperating this artist from the rest of them what done worked on this, let’s limit the criticism to his script.

In terms of overall enjoyability, the main problem with it is that it’s got quite a lot to squeeze in to make the scenario understandable, and I don’t think it’s got quite the right balance of pacing to it. There’s a bit too much at start, although I sort-of understand why that was done, and not quite enough at the end, where the chasing and the shooting and the fighting and all that does start blending into each other somewhat. It gives the film an unbalanced feel, although it’s not a film crippling offense, and there’s enough quips peppered throughout to have Will Smith’s charisma plaster over a lot of gaps.

There’s been a few more outre criticisms levelled at the script that I don’t think are worth getting into, but I will say if you watch this film and come away thinking Landis has equated working class Black and Latinx people with “sub-human” orcs, you’re assuming a great deal of bad faith of Landis’ part that I don’t think the rest of his career and character supports, even under his current clouds. He’s an arsehole in a very different way. That said, let me just check my privilege, yup, still set to auld white guy, so take my opinion for what very little it is worth.

This is a brave new world of film distribution, and we reviewers must change along with it. I’d be summing up very differently if this was out only in cinemas, but Netflix is such a different kettle of fish that the value propositions have changed entirely. It’s certainly not worth subscribing just for this film, or indeed any single film, but that’s not what Netflix is selling you on. Assuming you are already subscribed, is it worth watching at least the first half hour and seeing if it intrigues you enough to continue? Of course it is. At that point, the only cost is your time. But couldn’t you say the same about any film on Netflix? Of course. That’s how they getcha.

Instead, then, let’s say this. There’s a lot of world-building in here that takes a few more risks and has a broader scope than most Hollywood films, and that’s to be applauded (see also Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, an otherwise good film with the severe misfortune to have been infected with charisma vacuum Dane Dehaan). However, a lot of the more meat and potatoes aspects of the film, the dialogue, the action, the performances, so on, hover around the “fine” descriptor, bringing this down to a somewhere-just-above-average mark, and there’s any number of outright better films out just now that makes it difficult to recommend dropping everything to watch. But it’s not a bad film, and those calling it the worst film of the year were, I suspect, looking only to boost pageviews at a time of the year when they start naturally tailing off due to the holidays. Not that I’m a cynic or anything. I just miss the days when Will Smith would provide theme tunes for his films.