BRIGHT_Unit_10265_R3_2040.0.jpg

These two do all the heavy lifting. They have a lot of chemistry without which this movie wouldn’t even work a little bit.

Bright is, in its own weird way, as divisive a movie as The Last Jedi. But kind of in reverse? General audiences seem to like it but critics fucking hate it. Well, I don’t hate it. I think it’s pretty great for what it is, but what it is seems to bother some people that don’t want to meet it on its own terms. I don’t really blame them, the way I might with other films, but it is worthwhile to point out that many of the criticisms are misguided. For one thing, can you blame this movie for being derivative of David Ayer’s own earlier work if that was entirely the point of the exercise? You can’t ignore that Bright basically remakes/recycles parts of Training Day and End of Watch and mixes in elements from a host of other movies and games, including Alien Nation and Shadowrun. It’s a big ol’ stew and it is frequently messy, but is that in itself bad or dumb? I say no. At the same time, I get why it might result in a lot of skepticism and impatience for viewers.

Max Landis wrote this movie for Ayer to direct (he also rewrote it) precisely because the concept was a mash-up of Ayer’s best cop movies and what is best described as “fantasy shit” (there’s a little more to it, but just a little). I’m not saying this makes it a good idea, or a good result, but it’s also kind of dumb to ignore where this movie came from when there’s no way it should ever be viewed as this independent self-contained thing. It’s not even a self-contained story. One of the more reasonable criticisms of it is that it feels more like a two-hour pilot for a TV show than it does a movie, especially with its ending. After watching it, I definitely wanted to hang out in this world more (and with these characters) and I’m not surprised that Netflix immediately green-lit a sequel. This project just feels like the start of a bigger story, rightly or wrongly. Landis and Ayer are both divisive figures themselves. They’re both white dudes who have gotten into trouble for speaking for non-white non-dudes in the wider discourse if identity politics and representation. They both seem to essentially mean well but have difficulty getting past their own privilege and the way it informs the way they talk (about race especially). Landis is viewed by many as a douchebag millennial poster-boy whose main talent is nepotism (his dad is John Landis) and occasionally clever remixes of other peoples’ work. He occasionally earns those opinions, but I think his work has been mostly good. Channel Zero and Chronicle are legitimately good things. Dirk Gently seems okay, American Ultra was okay, and Mr. Right was like an alt-version of American Ultra that is better, lesser known, and fairly underrated. Ayer, on the other hand, seems to shit out gold in one hand and… well, shit out shit in the other. This is a guy whose last two movies were Suicide Squad and Fury. To say he has a range in quality is an understatement. Even before that he seemed to be making one good movie out of every two, though I’d argue that both Sabotage and Harsh Times (his weaker ones) are head and shoulders better than Suicide Squad. Get these guys to make a movie together and the hope is that it combines what both of them are best at. I think on that level, we’re mostly getting just that but what your reaction is will depend a lot on whether you’re even here for whatever Max Landis and David Ayer are doing.

Though I thought it was a fun movie that had some dramatic and thematic legs, I can’t argue against the fact that Bright doesn’t really work when either of the two halves of its make-up is examined on its own merits. Bright is too derivative of its director’s own earlier work to stand up as a cop movie. Its world-building and fantasy elements are similarly familiar (derivative) for people who’ve seen or read Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. So your mileage on this whole crazy thing is going to vary depending on whether this fusion can work for you. Tropes and iconography can be referenced in a way that is meant to do all the work for the audience to buy into a world, which was one of the biggest problems with Suicide Squad. Landis is maybe better at that stuff than Ayer and I would argue that the litmus test for enjoying what Bright is doing is whether you think he/they pulled it off here. Bright expects you to understand the iconography and tropes enough to roll with what it’s doing, the hope being that the fusion will add some depth to what are too fairly shallow halves. That depth of world is necessary to buy into it enough to roll further with the movie’s themes, which are really about power, class, and race relations. This is the real meat, because this movie is very political. It’s not a super deep dive on any one of these points, but there is something to be said for the fact that the movie doesn’t treat race, class, and power as separate issues, instead drawing connections and pointing at the things “SJWs” have been saying since before there was a dismissive and ironically shitty acronym to describe people who stand up for other people. I think that identity politics and progressive messages (representation, tolerance, etc) are the kind of thing you have to re-iterate from as many facets and angles as you can. That didn’t used to be the approach. Stories that talked about race or class tended to ignore the other side of the coin, failing to make necessary connections between the ways these social issues are linked. There’s also that privilege makes people stubborn so maybe this movie’s orcs will be what finally clicks race and class intersections in street gang culture for some white boy watching it on his computer, one tab on Netflix and the other on InfoWars. Maybe seeing orcs in Crips drag is what does it. I doubt that’s expressly what Ayer or Landis are trying to do, but it isn’t lost on me that the more narratives (and types of narratives) speaking to these issues the better. The dudes who are very predisposed to watching The Last Jedi or Bright may not be the same dudes who watch Selma or Get Out or even Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri but all of these movies are saying some things in common that they, maybe more than anyone, need to hear.bright_unit_02691r1-e1513805863720.jpg

Nick is a really likeable character and not just because he’s an underdog.

The first few minutes are devoted to a great world-building credits sequence that uses graffiti and slogans to give us bits of the puzzle pieces that make up Bright‘s backstory. It’s not as rich as I’d like, but it’s a promising start and shows that at the very least, the movie has some interesting choices about how it transmits information. The second interesting choice the movie makes is starting with its two characters, Ward (Will Smith) and Nick (Joel Edgerton) already partners for some time and already having a pretty dramatic incident between them. Ward is just going back on duty after being shot, an event that Nick is blamed for which makes his position as the police force’s first orc cop even more precarious. Bright takes place in a world where there have always been fantasy races and beings living alongside humans, where the imagined differences between human “races” are totally minimized and replaced with actual distinct species that make it pretty impossible to upend racialization via science. So how do you tackle diversity? By focusing on personhood, which we just call “humanity” because we only really recognize humans as persons outside of fiction. Nick and the other orcs are people but they are widely depersonalized (dehumanized) because they chose the wrong side in an epic battle that united the rest of the races 2000 years ago. Orcs like Nick have been trying to live that down ever since.

Though there’s a clear parallel to race relations in Nick’s characterization and especially in how he has to struggle with society and his peers, there’s also an element of commentary here for the way fantasy is racialized. This is a subject I often try to bring up with my fantasy-loving friends but it is so deeply entwined with fantasy as a genre that it’s a very challenging subject for most of them. The result is usually resorting to in-universe justifications that divorce the work from the person behind it, from the socio-cultural context that informed it. Nerds are the best people in the world at maintaining cognitive dissonance and compartmentalizing our critical faculties. I’m very glad Bright represents fantasy orcs while also using them as a stand-in for minoritized Americans from black, Latino, and other racialized groups. I think not only does this movie have the potential to convert some white boys, it might also make fantasy nerds (a group with a tendency toward problematic beliefs about… you name it) more cognizant of the way our favorite genre reinforces or stealthily pushes very questionable ideas and agendas. In this way, Bright feels like a literature student’s critical examination of Tolkien’s fixation on orcs as an “evil race” and the way they and their allies represent the savage, the barbaric, the unknown, the invader, the Eastern, and the dark-skinned. And the way the nerds come out to defend this as if it’s all independent and untethered from the very real and well documented race-based insecurities, fears, and prejudices of Tolkien’s day.

brightorcs.jpg

What is the common denominator between the black folks, Latinos, and orcs as seen in this movie? Hint: it’s not how they dress.

This is also a world where lots of key events from our familiar history must have happened. Slavery, for example. We see that the oppressed, ghettoized orcs live alongside black folks and Latinos with similar circumstances. But the reason is different. Though it’s tempting to read the orc oppression as a parallel for black oppression, leading you to conclude that the movie is saying somehow that slavery was a bad call black folks made (obviously capital P problematic), this is a place where the movie is making an entirely different point and is back to being as much about fantasy as it is about real-world race relations and America’s racist history. Orcs serving a dark lord and fighting against the “good races” only to be left behind when they lost is not really a parallel for anyone (maaaybe Mexican-Americans via the Mexican-American war), but is a special bit of backstory for them that gives a unique reason for their oppression. The point is that oppression is pretty much the same, no matter the reason, and humans hating on orcs for a 2000 year old mistake is not functionally dissimilar from white people hating on blacks as a result of internalizing 200 years of racial propaganda that was expressly intended to rationalize and justify the practices of slavery and colonialism.

See, all this stuff is incredibly interesting and the movie is layered with it, intentionally or not. Some of it is obnoxious and maybe counter-productive or undermining to what seems like the overall message. The “fairy lives don’t matter today” bit is a touch more nuanced in the film than in the trailer, but it’s still hard to parse that as anything more than edgelord “I’m trying to provoke you” wankery. At the same time, it’s hard to find a more delicious and dramatic visual of wealth inequality and the consumer-capitalist mechanisms that support it than “Elftown”. An anti-oppression class could have a fucking field day with this movie. It’s far more interesting than either the cop story or the fantasy story on their own, but it very nicely dovetails and interacts with the themes and mechanics in those parts of the story. The cop story is about corruption and the fantasy story is about extremism. Both stories are about power and how it is wielded, as seen through the narrow but potentially very impactful experiences of our two heroes and the elf girl Tikka (Lucy Fry) they run into in what could have been a more or less ordinary shift (for this world anyway).

MK1_5359.CR2

The titty bar shootout and accompanying banter is trademark Ayer sleaze.

Bright is structured around a “run all night” story that is basically the same thing as End of Watch but with an extra character and many more factions and threats gunning for the heroes. This movie is pretty much stuffed with people who want to kill Ward, Nick, and Tikka. There are corrupt cops, two different gangs, a bunch of sinister elves, and even some Federal Agents who hunt magic-users. This is because they are in possession of one of three magic wands, keys to restoring the Dark Lord and beginning another war (foreshadowing for movie two, obviously). Magic is shaggy here, like most of the other fantasy elements, but we get plenty of evidence that wands are dangerous and the Inferni, led by Leilah (Noomi Rapace), are treated mostly as a serious threat. Other factions are more humanized, but even Leilah has a moment with Tikka that is shooting for pathos (falls a bit short though) that deepens her and her people beyond “evil cult”. The Latino gang leader and his people, seeming only a step or two beyond a cartoon of L.A. Latino gangs, has personal and kind of sympathetic reasons for wanting the wand. The orcs similarly have motives and social dynamics that are briefly explored, but explored all the same. Unfortunately the dynamics of the elves and how they reached the top (let alone the other half dozen or so races we never see) are left for a future movie. I can see how the list of things this one doesn’t resolve may add to the frustration and impatience that this movie seems to engender. For people who enjoyed it in spite of that, there’s the promise of more to satisfy our desire for deeper or wider exploration into the world of Bright. The Feds are especially a sore spot since Edgar Ramirez seems to be committed to the role (and his ridiculous but awesome look) but he’s barely in the movie.

Bright does start to run itself a little thin toward the end, though, especially where Leilah and her elf-pals (who we’ve seen dismantle SWAT teams and pretty much everyone else with apparent ease) are too easily dispatched by Ward and Nick, who are battered and beaten from a night of pure hell. Nick, especially, has even died and come back by this point. It’s a hard sell that these two, even with Tikka, could take on the three Inferni. Even when Ward is revealed to be Bright (a twist the movie might as well have worn on a sign). That is the beginning of several universe-serving missteps the last quarter of the film makes. A redeeming spot in it is the hospital scene and that’s mostly because it’s just Nick being Nick for three straight minutes. Edgerton is seriously the MVP of this movie. The rest of it just feels like it’s serving the goal of building a bigger universe which means that the events of this movie can’t have too big of consequences or the formula won’t be semi-repeatable for the sequel. That part feels somewhat cynical and shoehorned in at the expense of a more tonally consistent and narratively satisfying conclusion that deals more directly with some of the consequences of the events of the film as opposed to shoving them under a rug.

1513091486266

Rapace is fun but underused.

Maybe Edgerton is why something I liked a lot was the orc subplot. Nick is “unblooded” which basically means he and his forefathers lived outside the filial orc clan structure where a brave act makes one a “blooded” or full member with full status in orcish honor culture. Nick even files down his tusks to seem less threatening. These are great parallels to a variety of racial and cultural experiences, particularly the way black folks, especially black men, have to suppress anger, even when it’s completely justified, so that they don’t scare the white folks into shooting them. I had some hope that Nick would be the first orc “Bright” (someone who can use magic, usually elves but sometimes humans) but I think the idea that Nick is a symbolic or actual reincarnation of an orc hero that defied the dark lord is an even better alternative and ensures that both Ward and Nick have “special status” in the “fantasy” story of Bright. Neither of them needed to be (it could be argued that it’d be better if they were both nobodies) but I think if one of them has to be some kind of chosen one, they both should be. Though other races are briefly seen or mentioned (dwarves, centaurs, etc), orcs are the most fully explored in the movie and so it’s a nice payoff to see that Nick is at least accepted among them for his deeds in the movie. The ending suggests he’s also going to have newfound acceptance among humans, especially the police, but I think the orc stuff is more satisfying especially since the “medal ceremony” that closes the movie is weirdly upbeat and doesn’t seem to fit tonally with the rest of the movie.

On balance, I think Bright has some stuff to say but really does ask you to roll with a lot of stuff in order for it too work. Is it asking too much of the audience? That’s possible, especially for audiences that aren’t made up of people who have the background in the stuff it’s referencing or aping. For some people, its concept might be too silly or ridiculous to take the rest of the movie seriously. It may also fail to get deeply enough into either side of its story to be satisfying. People see shots like that one with the dragon flying over the city and they want more but often fail to realize that there’s intrigue in hints vs. reveals. It’s fun to see that dragon and imagine and we should ask ourselves if we really need every single element to be examined in order to be satisfied. It’s also tempting to think that Bright takes itself way too seriously, but I don’t think that’s really true. One of the reasons Ayer’s brand of growly grimdark machismo is palatable to me at all is that he consistently remembers to be ironic, self-aware, and playful with it. Bright certainly plays to that as there’s just no way they were sitting there for some of these scenes and not giggling. In that sense, it frequently reminded me of the Whedonverse (Buffy and Angel) which had a lot of self-seriousness mixed with humor that comes naturally from the sheer audacity of the elements being played with. Demons that gamble with cats isn’t a far cry from an orc gang boss who monologues about block partying dwarves in Miami. If you can have fun with this stuff, Bright is going to be a good ride. It has solid action, mostly solid dialogue, and has a really solid structure to hang a movie on. It’s ending ain’t great and it occasionally steps on its own toes with its social commentary, but I think it’s kind of wonderful that this movie even exists.

 

 

 

Advertisements