I love urban fantasy. I mean, I love fantasy in general, but there’s something especially fun about throwing the monsters and magic of a fairytale into a normal 21st-century environment and watching how regular people handle them. It’s a genre that hasn’t gotten as much mainstream attention as I think it deserves, so I was rather pleased when I saw the Netflix advertisements for this film.
Director: David Ayer
Writer: Max Landis
Starring: Will Smith and Joel Edgerton
Music by: David Sardy
The story takes place in an alternate version of modern Los Angeles that is mainly populated by three species: elves, humans, and orcs, listed in order of their social standing. Daryl Ward is a human cop who is reluctantly partnered with Nick Jakoby, the only orc officer on the force. When the movie begins, Ward is returning to work after recovering from being shot, and he’s a wee bit upset with his partner for letting the culprit (another orc) get away. But the pair soon have bigger problems to worry about after they stumble across a magic wand–a powerful weapon that can only be wielded by someone born with magical abilities, called a Bright. Hunted by a corrupt police force, power-hungry gangsters, and an evil elvish cult, Ward and Jakoby have to keep the wand out of the wrong hands while protecting the runaway elf who guards it.
Despite its fantastical trappings, this movie is filmed very much like a gritty cop drama, complete with boatloads of profanity, several bloody shoot-outs, and some utterly gratuitous shots in a strip club. Personally, I could have done with a lot less grit, but there are times when the “urban” and “fantasy” sides of the equation complement each other quite well. It’s clear the filmmakers put a lot of work into creating their world, a version of modern America where fantasy creatures have always existed alongside humans. Elves and orcs even get their own languages, and there are references to what sounds like a fascinating alternate world history. This movie introduces so many interesting ideas, in fact, that I almost feel it would work better as a TV series. Two hours just isn’t enough time to fully explore the concept on which it’s built (although a sequel does appear to be in the works).
Also, Bright has some…problems. Some of the attempts at humour are cringeworthy (“Fairy lives don’t matter today!”), and some of the musical choices are even more cringeworthy. Ward is such a jerk for most of the movie that it can be hard to sympathise with him. And I found a few plot developments towards the end to be extremely predictable.
Still, taking one thing with another, I’d say there’s more good about this movie than bad. Even if it does feel like it would be better suited to a show, the sheer amount of worldbuilding here is impressive for a stand-alone movie, and it’s even accomplished without too much awkward exposition. The relationship between the two cops, as they start to overcome their distrust and prejudice, and eventually form a kind of friendship, is very believable and leads to some heartwarming moments. That’s largely thanks to the acting skills of Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, who play off each other excellently. Also, I found Jakoby to be a very endearing character in general. As an orc who’s seen as a traitor by his own race and a monster by humans, he’s clearly had a lot of crap thrown his way throughout his life, but he’s still an optimist who just wants to make the world a better place for humans and orcs alike. He more than makes up for his partner’s jerkishness.
Obviously, the fantastic race relations in this movie are meant to mirror real-world ones. Elves are the privileged elite, with all the nice clothes and cars and control over the government. They’ve even got police checkpoints outside their gated communities to keep out the riffraff. Orcs are the oppressed minority group, brutalised by police and feared by civilians, often turning to a life of crime because it’s their only option. It’s not subtle, and it hits many of the same beats Zootopia did a couple years ago. Still, in this day and age, it’s hard to dislike a heartfelt story about two people from very different cultures working together and finding common ground. “Don’t hate people just because they’re different” may not exactly be a revolutionary message to see in a movie, but it’s still a worthy one, and the friendship that forms the heart of this film makes it seem all the more sincere.
Bright definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. If you don’t like urban fantasy and/or aren’t familiar with it, the cop drama/fairytale mash-up could come across as too weird or silly to stomach. As a fan of urban fantasy, but not such a big fan of cop dramas, I found some of the violence (and the aforementioned gratuitous strip club scenes) rather off-putting. But in the end, the movie’s imaginative world and the relationship between the two central characters saved it for me. I enjoyed it quite a bit, despite its flaws.
But as a fantasy fan, I’m still holding out for a good Netflix adaptation of The Dresden Files.