Genre mashups can be fun! In theory, the idea of a gritty police drama set in a modern-day America where orcs, elves, and humans coexist could be enjoyable! As a general rule, for a genre mashup to succeed, a film has to get at least one of those genres right. Netflix’s Bright, which bills itself as part buddy-cop movie, part lavish fantasy, does neither justice, resulting in lazy nonsense that’s too silly to be good and too self-serious to be any fun.
Directed by David Ayer (Suicide Squad) and written by Max Landis (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency), Bright centers on L.A.P.D. officers Ward (Will Smith) and Jakoby (Joel Edgerton). Ward is human, and Jakoby is the force’s first orc cop, a job that’s made him an untrustworthy outsider to his colleagues and a traitor to his fellow orcs. Ward, to his annoyance, has been partnered with the so-called “diversity hire,” and after an early encounter with an orc criminal goes south, Ward is left with some serious resentment toward his new partner.
But before they can hash out their problems, the two are swept up into a mystical conspiracy involving a secret elvish society and a magic wand. The highly-coveted wands are extremely rare and powerful and can only be used by highly-specialized magic users referred to as “Brights.” Everyone else who touches one explodes. (It’s not as exciting as it sounds.) When Ward and Jakoby get their hands on one, they find themselves on the run from their own colleagues, the feds, several L.A. gangs, and an evil, all-powerful elf woman played by Noomi Rapace — all while trying to also protect a good, all-powerful elf woman played by Lucy Fry.
As the well-intentioned Jakoby, Edgerton is actually fairly charming under all the prosthetics and makeup, and despite the film’s nonsensical plot, you can’t help but root for his big-hearted orc. Less successful are Bright’s ham-handed attempts to draw parallels between racial discrimination and magical discrimination. Perhaps there’s actual commentary on racial injustice buried under all the one-liners and shootouts, but it’s hard to take Bright seriously when it opens with Smith stomping on a fairy who got into his bird feeder, yelling, “Fairy lives don’t matter today!”
There are hints of a larger, more interesting world here — at one point a dragon drifts over the L.A. skyline — but Bright is more interested in its surface-level racial metaphors and B-movie fantasy tropes, and the whole thing feels like half-hearted fan fiction dreamed up after watching The Lord of the Rings for the first time. There’s a MacGuffin to be found, a prophecy to be fulfilled, and some mysterious, boring dark lord to thwart. Bright’s female characters are especially half-baked, and Fry’s Tikka is essentially a babbling redux of Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element or less-interesting Summer Glau in Firefly. Even the production design is uninspired: You’d think that a story with strange creatures and secret societies would warrant some clever visual world-building, but despite its name, Bright takes place almost entirely in dimly lit, abandoned buildings. Oh, and why not throw in a strip club shootout, too, because a movie with orcs, elves, and magic can’t think of a more innovative place to set an action scene?
Bright is reportedly Netflix’s most expensive original film ever, and according to Bloomberg, a sequel has already been ordered. In theory, a modern-day fantasy setting sounds like a perfect franchise starter, and with better execution, it could’ve made for a launchpad to all sorts of sequels and spinoffs. In reality, Ayer and Landis’s world is so dull and ill-conceived that few will want to spend any additional time there. It’s a world of magic that lacks any of its own.