There’s boring, there’s bad, and then there’s “Bright,” a movie so profoundly awful that Republicans will probably try to pass it into law over Christmas break. From the director of “Suicide Squad” and the writer of “Victor Frankenstein” comes a fresh slice of hell that somehow represents new lows for them both — a dull and painfully derivative ordeal that often feels like it was made just to put those earlier misfires into perspective. The only thing more predictable than this high-concept police story is the idea that a year as punishing as 2017 would save the worst for last. At least “The Emoji Movie” owned up to the fact that it was just putting shit on screen; at least “The Emoji Movie” had the courtesy to dress it up in a bowtie.
A $90 million blockbuster that boasts all the production value of an episode of “Charmed,” Netflix’s first mega-budget film effort starts with a potentially compelling premise that never gets off the ground. The elevator pitch is easy enough to understand, even if it requires some further explanation: “Bright” is essentially “Training Day” meets “The Lord of the Rings,” but much dumber than that sounds. Imagine, if you will, that the war for Middle Earth was a seismic event on our timeline, and that all of the various fantasy creatures who participated in the fight simply went their separate ways once it was over.
The last 2,000 years have played out more or less as we know them, but all sorts of magical species have stuck around in the margins of our history books. Modern day Los Angeles is almost identical to how it is in real life, except that elves are the one percent and orcs are the systemically oppressed underclass. The film’s lazy refusal to explore its conceit any deeper than that is truly staggering, but director David Ayer is only willing to make so much room for the heightened genre elements, lest any of that nerd stuff infringe on his well-documented infatuation with (or fetish for?) the LAPD.
Needless to say, the only remotely believable conflict in “Bright” is between the “grittiness” of a police drama and the fantasticality of a plot that revolves around the search for a magic wand, Ayer cramming those two things together like “R.I.P.D.” never happened. Something like “District 9” stands out as another clear point of comparison, but that movie’s riff on South Africa felt so lived-in. Maybe “Bright” would have fared better had Ayer repurposed the faux-documentary approach he brought to “End of Watch,” but hedging between the film’s disparate modes results in unmitigated disaster.
It’s rare to see a movie so toxic that it manages to raise multiple red flags before the very first shot, but “Bright” is a special piece of work. As if the goofy crackle of blue magic that runs through the Netflix logo isn’t enough of a warning sign, that gag is followed by a card for a production company called “Trigger Warning Entertainment.” Just gonna go out on a limb and suggest that these might not be the best people to make a thinly veiled metaphor for America’s racial violence that starts with Will Smith swatting a rodent-like garden sprite and declaring that “Fairy lives don’t matter!” Lock and load, snowflakes!
Smith, in a hangdog performance so dispiriting that it might genuinely make you pity one of the world’s most successful people, stars as Daryl Ward, a second lieutenant who was just shot in the line of duty. Daryl had the bad luck of being partnered with Nick Jakoby, the first Orc on the force, and he paid a stiff price for his involuntary role in social progress. Nick (played by Joel Edgerton, mercifully unrecognizable underneath a splotchy latex mask that makes him look like a syphilitic Navy Seal), is just a nice guy who happens to be making history.
Nick never wanted to be the Jackie Robinson of of the LAPD, he just dreamed of having a badge. Unfortunately, orcs see him as a traitor, and humans see him as a monster, so Daryl is his only genuine shot at acceptance. (Spoiler alert: It turns out that who you are on the inside is all that really matters.) The two of them are going to have to forge some kind of mutual trust if they hope to survive the long night to come, which starts when a routine house call spirals out of control and leaves them fending off racist cops, protecting a mute elf (Lucy Fry), and trying to stop her sister (Noomi Rapace) from summoning “the dark lord” or whatever.
Oh yeah, “Bright” leans way too hard hard on “whatever.” As if the film’s racial dynamics aren’t flimsy enough — don’t ask how black people fit into a story that problematically recodes them as a violent breed of orcs who are responsible for their own subjugation, because screenwriter Max Landis never did — its fantasy mythology is even less coherent. Guillermo del Toro puts more thought into a single one of his creatures than Landis and Ayer manage to spread across the entirety of this interminable “Funny or Die” sketch, as every attempt at world-building is so feeble that it feels like the film is making fun of its own thoughtlessness.
“Orcs love death metal!” is the kind of cute, insufferably trite “bad idea” that a writer might use to start a conversation about creating a rich modern fantasy world, not to end one. Alas, it’s par for the course in a movie that might as well be making up its mythology as it goes along, as Landis busts out a cheap prophecy to pave over the most galling plot contrivances, and Ayer happily wastes half of his lighting budget on a glowing pool of milk that… uh… does something…to stop the dark lord? Or whatever.
The creative freedom that Netflix grants filmmakers is wonderful and worth considering, but “Bright” suggests that constructive oversight isn’t always a bad thing. A few studio notes can go a long way. Hopefully, a lack of supervision doesn’t translate to a lack of concern.
Truth be told, “Bright” is so wretched that it invites only the most cynical of interpretations, leaving you with no choice but to assume the film was tainted by the knowledge that most of its audience would see it on their phones or laptops. Ayer’s dim and sloppy action set-pieces look wildly out of place on a movie screen (they’re so bland you almost expect Iron Fist to show up), and the constipated dialogue scenes that surround them tend to repeat the same points ad nauseam, as though they were written to accommodate a teenage kid who’s multi-tasking between the movie he’s watching in one window and the porn he’s streaming in another.
Forget about staying woke, “Bright” doesn’t even care if you’re really watching. Without exaggeration, the final dialogue exchange in this movie is so punishingly drawn out that you might start wondering what you did wrong. But please, if you’re going to watch this, watch this at home. Netflix’s release plan remains unclear, but you couldn’t have a worse experience in a movie theater if you saw “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” in 4DX.
The real problem with “Bright” — or the realest of its problems, anyway — is that the movie’s damage could linger for long after the lights come up (or after you’ve clicked away from it in favor of re-watching the new season of “The Crown”). Potentially a dark harbinger of things to come, “Bright” isn’t only the worst film of 2017, it could be responsible for many of the worst films of 2018 and beyond. If this gambit pays off — if Netflix fortifies their assault on the theatrical experience by internally developing blockbuster-sized movies that are even semi-consciously optimized for disinterested audiences — then it’s hard to imagine how dark the future of feature-length filmmaking might be. Here’s one indication: Shortly before the embargo on “Bright” reviews was lifted, Netflix announced that a sequel to “Bright” is already in the works.
“Bright” will be available to stream on Netflix on December 22.
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