Chances are, even if you aren’t attached to the Netflix scene, you’ve caught at least a passing glimmer of Bright. I’ve seen endless advertisements on Facebook, YouTube, and other popular online hangouts and I think the heavy promotion makes sense. It’s a high budget, urban fantasy film, a sub-genre that certainly isn’t new but is rarely spotlighted, making it feel fresh and original. The film stars the ever popular Will Smith acting like “Will Smith,” a performance universally enjoyed by general audiences ever since he lit up the screen in Independence Day in 1996. And for what it’s worth, the hype worked: Bright got at least 11 million views within the first three days of its release, which may not compare to Stranger Things 2’s pull of over 15 million but is still in the higher margin among Netflix shows.
Well, as successful as the first week of Bright has been, I’m more interested in lasting success, i.e. “is the film great?” I can firmly say that it’s not. Bright is full of cool ideas, some well executed concepts, and a slew of lively performances, but it's also sickeningly one-dimensional and the audience feels its two hour length. What’s interesting, however, is that I also walked away feeling like two hours wasn’t enough: I really wanted to see more.
The biggest issue I have with Bright is common among sci-fi and fantasy films; it’s something I call “death by worldbuilding.” The movie offers a prodigious setting loaded with fantasy elements that are never explored in full, then mixes those elements with the modern grime of Los Angeles to make something inherently new. There are large orc communities living in the ghetto and elves leading the glamorous snob high life in a world where the most dangerous weapons known to mankind are a few unaccounted-for “magic wands.” Pest exterminators are hired to clear out faerie infestations, orcs invented what we consider “death metal,” and in the film’s only major vista shot I saw a dragon casually flying around in the sky. And you’re telling me the focus of the film is that a human officer – unwillingly paired with the police force’s diversity orc officer – must uphold the peace? This material writes itself; I’ll take ten episodes right now.
But, unfortunately, we don’t have a series to work with; we have a single film. This setting is so ridiculously huge, I feel you’d need a minimum of four to five hours to really dig into it. We only have two. So, instead of getting a complex story that deeply explores the intricacies of urban fantasy lifestyles and maybe has a bit of social commentary mixed in, here’s the story we got: two cops with a bit of bad history investigate a neighborhood disturbance and stumble across a magic wand, which leads to an absurdly long and crazy MacGuffin chase involving a bunch of heretic elves whom the wand was stolen from. The plot careens through the dirty underbelly of this fantasy Los Angeles, taking the characters through some particularly dicey environs and eventually leading to a big standoff at the end. Oh, and between locales, the partner cops work out their beef as we’re given minor amounts of exposition about the inner workings of their world. But it’s all so small: everything we’re given is insufficient, and the intensity of this creation demands something bigger. Something like Bright really needs a slow-burning lantern that can lurch its light across the entire landscape, eventually revealing its complexities at a reasonable pace; instead, the film is given a flare gun, technically illuminating everything but for so little time we can’t parse the details in its short burn.
And I’m certainly not the only one taking issue with Bright. It’s been widely panned by critics for a number of things I didn’t mention, like the heavy-handed social commentary and bad cinematography (I thought it was fine, just ironically badly lit) – and some are even saying it’s one of the worst films of the year. Despite all this criticism, Netflix is going ahead with their original plan to produce a sequel with the same leads. For what it’s worth I completely agree with that decision because it gives Bright the one thing it really needs: a little extra time in the sun.