Rating: C- or 2.5
Summary: It’s kind of Training Day, but with magic. It also has clumsy race allegories tying it all together.
I should preface this by saying that the writer of this film has been outed for alleged downright creepy and inappropriate behavior towards multiple women and has lost a great deal of respect from me. I had to wrestle with whether or not to even see this movie, but seeing as how it’s being roasted by everyone in the online movie critic discourse, I wanted to see it for myself and bash it if necessary- kind of as a way to reconcile the inherent crappiness of a guy who I once idolized. I’m not saying whether or not you should or should not support works by toxic people, even just to laugh at it. This is just my way of dealing with it.
With all that in mind.
Allegory is a popular device used throughout fantasy and sci-fi to portray truths through the lens of fiction. It can be subtle, like how District 9 portrays the evils of Apartheid and bigotry with inhuman characters while still being a compelling sci-fi film. It also can be completely on the surface and obvious, like in James Cameron’s Ferngully in Space. I personally believe allegory, when used effectively, can be a useful tool to get complex ideas across to a general audience through the guise of genre flicks…
Which brings us to David Ayer’s Bright, a film that wants to be a topical allegory. Instead, the allegory and setting fall apart into an inconsistent mess.
Throughout the film, I found myself asking the following questions about this alternate Los Angeles and the film’s setting as a whole:
How does Los Angeles even have the name Los Angeles in a timeline where Orcs and Elves exist?
How does the United States even exist as it does in this alternate timeline?
Do Elves and Orcs all come from their own respective regions? If not, why are there no different ethnicities among Orcs and Elves?
How does the N-Word even exist in this timeline? Does that mean the Atlantic Slave Trade existed? Were the Elves slave owners????
Adding to that last one, how does any of our timelines history even happen in a world where several other literal races exist beside us? According to one of the minor characters, the Alamo happened! What else happened!? Did WW2 happen??? Cold War??? HOW DO THESE EVENTS EVEN PLAY OUT WITH ORCS AND ELVES THROWN INTO THE MIX??
How does any of our pop culture even exist in this timeline??? HOW DOES SHREK EXIST IN THIS TIMELINE???
WHAT IS THIS WORLD AND WHY IS IT SO MUCH LIKE OURS WHEN MAGIC AND OTHER LITERAL FANTASTICAL RACES HAVE EXISTED ALONGSIDE THE HUMAN RACE FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS!
This all should summarize what the crippling problem with this film is. The setting doesn’t make any damn sense if you actually think about it for a second. It seems to me the writer just threw fantastical creatures at our world without actually going through the work of world-building. As someone who admires a good fantastical world, this movie feels like a total waste of a neat concept. It even has a simple fix, don’t have it set in OUR world. You’re already building upon the racial politics of Tolkien, just imagine up a world like modern Middle Earth! This way, you won’t have our timelines history and pop culture clashing with the story. There are no attempts to make the fantastical elements tie into our world logically or creatively whatsoever. Instead, you just have a lazy setting with no real thought behind it.
On top of a clumsy setting, is the mother lode of terrible and borderline offensive allegories. In the world of Bright, society exists based on a sort of hierarchical system divided by race to the point of segregation. The Elves being at the top, humans in the middle, and Orcs at the bottom of society. As far as I can tell the Humans are entirely identical to our world culturally and historically sans racism maybe? (Which again just makes this worlds’ history so God damned confusing). The film uses pretty blatent visual design and dialogue to tell the audience who the Elves and Orcs are supposed to be. This brings me to the what I feel is the most frustrating aspect of the film: race allegories get really convoluted and come with uncomfortable implications when you apply them to fantastical non-human races. Especially when you want the allegory to be about a specific race.
In the film, Orcs are used as a stand-in for poor Black Americans. This is especially explicit in how the Orcs are treated by this world’s LAPD and the costume design choices. However, the film decides to add a backstory to why Orcs are discriminated against by having a Sauron-like dark lord that their ancestors once served. This complicates the allegory by implying that marginalized groups (in this case Black Americans) are deserving of their oppression because of some sort of original sin. Keep in mind, not every allegory needs to be read directly like this. I am just pointing out how these kinds of blunders can pull someone out of the narrative. Honestly, I think this Dark Lord beat could have worked in the story. Time and time again, we see marginalized groups activism and call for equality being demonized by those who want to uphold the status quo. Wouldn’t it be much more compelling and help the allegory if you deconstructed the idea of Orcs being labeled as the bad guys? Besides the not too great backstory, it is tiresome to have another story where animalistic fantasy creatures are stand-ins for people of color.
Aside from the terrible fantastical racial politics and world-building, Bright is a pretty below average cop action flick. I say below average mostly due to the film’s lead, Will Smith as Ward. Smith has built his career on being incredibly charming, but there is zero charm in his character. It honestly felt that Smith was just reprising his role Deadshot but as a cop. There are some layers of depth there about a cop who realizes the system sucks but is complacent with it due to his economic standing. Smith just doesn’t bring anything extra to this character. On the other side of the acting spectrum, we have Joel Egerton as Jacobi. This character is what made the movie enjoyable for me. Egerton brings his A-game and excels at giving his character depth, while also having fun with the role. Terrible race allegory aside, Jacobi is a decent guy who even when dealing with an extremely hostile and discriminatory work environment, still aims to be a good cop. However, there are definitely moments where Jacobi comes off as a bafoon that just take me out of the movie. It’s one thing for a character to be realistically naive, and another to make him come off as an idiot. The two have a decent dynamic together but they never really come closer together in the end. Smith’s character even saying explicitly “We’re not friends.” It just left a sour taste in my mouth, and I like more sincerity in a buddy cop film.
The film’s plot is pretty standard action fare. Everyone wants the magic thing, a couple of shootouts, and credits. I’d say the action is serviceable and entertaining at some points. The renegade Elvish characters get to pull off some pretty sweet parkour type stuff that’s super cool. It’s all pretty average save for the few instances where magic gets involved.
Bright tries really hard to thread the allegorical needle, but just ends up tripping over itself. While entertaining in moments, the film is built on flimsy world-building that just made the whole affair confused. You can’t do a race allegory where all of our real-world human racial politics still in there. You can’t have a world where all these beings have thousands of years of history, and we still end up with our current world. It seems like the writer just went, “Los Angeles but with Tolkien,” and did none of the work to actually make the world feasible. Its lazy world-building and it just doesn’t make sense. Will Smith is incredibly unlikeable, but Egerton carries the flick. All in all, I would say this makes for a decent hate-watch, as long as you don’t think about it too much.
Ayer is already confirmed to return as director and write the film himself. I would suggest steering away from the allegorical stuff. Just have fun with making a shoot-‘em-up cop flick with magic.