Bright Is an Amusing Genre-Bend, But a Mess in Just About Every Other Way

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“Fairy lives don’t matter today.” So says Officer Ward (Will Smith) before brutally beating a tiny flying humanoid on his front lawn while his gangster neighbors watch with amusement. Its body lies crumpled on the grass, and despite the gratuitous CGI of it all, it’s kind of an upsetting sight. The setting is present-day Los Angeles, in an alternate reality where fantastical creatures live alongside humans, and dragons stalk the skies of Silver Lake. And it turns out to be true; fairy lives don’t actually matter all that much in Bright, despite the film’s breathless, constant reminders that the Races Aren’t Equal in L.A. It is not the first time the film loses sight of whatever half-formed idea it had about how bad racism is, and it is not the last.

Ward is an L.A. cop partnered with Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first-ever orc on a police force and a pariah both among his own kind and his human colleagues. What starts as a kind of prosthetic-infused Lethal Weapon redux quickly takes a turn for the woo-woo when the two cops get mixed up in an 11 illuminati’s scheme to summon a Dark Lord, and eventually come into the possession of a magic wand, which can only be wielded by a magic-adept “Bright.” They team up with a trembling, nonverbal and extremely powerful elf girl and try to keep the wand from getting into the wrong hands.

Bright turns out to be more interested in its mythrilpunk world-building than any kind of social commentary, which is a good thing, because while it is so-so at the former (the plot holes in this thing), it is clearly out of its depth with the latter. There are some legitimately fun touches in all of this. I appreciate that most of the elves look like they’ve had work done, a kind of IRL Facetune glow. The Illuminati hideout is inside a believably drab L.A. apartment complex, because of course that is where you would hide an altar to the Dark Lord. But by setting his story within the LAPD, Landis and Ayer borrow the seriousness of that institution’s checkered history to tell an otherwise inconsequential orcs-n-robbers yarn. It feels irresponsible at best, especially as interracial human violence is apparently a nonissue in this world, but Smith can still make a Black Lives Matter joke and it apparently plays.

Dungeons and Dragons–style fantasy, with its species-specific stats and attributes, is a pretty suspect well to draw from if you’re trying to pull off some kind of modern-day race relations metaphor. It’s most typically used as a kind of blurring device, a way to talk about inequality and injustice in a non-specific, inoffensive way, with the built-in disclaimer that it’s all pretend anyway. (Think of any Star Trek episode where the Enterprise encounters a planet embroiled in an interspecies conflict.) I’m not entirely sure what real counterpoint orcs and elves could contribute to the extremely real history of racially charged police violence in Los Angeles, besides the fact that it’s kind of cool in a three-bong-hits-in way. I can’t exactly argue with that — I’m a sucker for “real-life current-day location + demons and/or magic” — but I also don’t think Bright has anything more coherent to say about the state of the world than, say The Hobbit.

Bright Is an Amusing Genre-Bend, But a Mess