For Netflix, the road to success in the movie game has been a lot longer than it was for their television efforts. While House of Cards’ fortunes have fallen far, when Netflix’s first series premiered it was an instant success with both critics and audiences. Since then the streaming giant has produced dozens of very popular and successful shows, with no signs of slowing down.
By contrast, none of Netflix’s movie efforts have taken off in the same way as their shows. While there have been critical successes with movies, like Beasts of No Nation and Mudbound, that would be considered independent films if they were released theatrically, the streaming giant has yet to launch their equivalent of a blockbuster studio franchise.
Netflix is finally looking to change that with Bright, the new Will Smith-starring fantasy-action movie from writer Max Landis and director David Ayer. As I was putting the finishing touches on this review, news broke that Netflix has already signed Smith for a sequel, before the first movie has premiered on their service. Unfortunately for Netflix, I’m not sure the demand for a sequel will be there. While I personally found the film to be an enjoyable experience, I expect Bright is destined for cult status rather than broad success.
Bright centers around Smith’s Daryl Ward, an LAPD beat cop in a world where humans coexist with Elves, Orcs, pixies, and magic. His partner is Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), America’s first Orc policeman (Orcs are second-class citizens, reviled for their participation on the wrong side of an ancient war with a powerful magical being called the Dark Lord). After an incident where Ward is shot by an Orc gangster who then escapes from, or is let go by, fellow Orc Jakoby, discord is sewn between the partners. When they stumble upon a magic wand—an all-powerful super-weapon that can only be wielded by unique individuals called Brights—they wind up on the run on the streets of LA from fellow cops, magical feds, and gangs of humans, Orcs, and Elves, all of whom want to try and harness the power of the wand. Ward and Jakoby have to find a way to survive and protect the wand’s mysterious Elven owner (Lucy Fry) without knowing who they can trust, including each other.
What Bright does best is, luckily, the most important thing it needed to get right: creating a convincing urban fantasy setting. David Ayer and his team of visual and practical effects artists seamlessly married the low-fi, gritty, aesthetic of Ayer’s previous LA-set cop dramas with all of the surreal and magical elements that Landis has invented. Ayer made the smart decision to shoot everything, no matter how mundane or fantastic, in the same matter-of-fact style, so when you see a centaur cop manning a checkpoint or a dragon winging its way through an establishing shot it all feels of a piece with the familiar landscape of Los Angeles.
That matter-of-fact ethos carries through every aspect of Bright. Beyond the fundamental fantasy underpinnings of the premise, Landis’s screenplay is much more in the tradition of Training Day than The Lord of the Rings. There’s no highfalutin Shakespearean dialogue; characters all talk like we do in the real world, whether they be human, Elf, or Orc. And beyond the magic wand MacGuffin at the center of the plot, this is very much a guns and car chases movie, not a swords and sorcery affair (shots in trailers of Smith wielding a blade are a bit of a red herring).
And for a guns and car chases movie, Bright is a fun one. Ayer knows how to shoot this kind of action, having done it several times before, and the set-pieces are all well-choreographed and easy to follow. Ward and Jakoby are fun characters to follow through that action. Edgerton has the meatier role; Jakoby is an “unblooded” Orc, an outcast in a community of outcasts. Jakoby doesn’t belong in either the Orcish or human worlds, and he plays that conflict with real humanity (thankfully, the prosthetics covering his face are not so cumbersome that they prevent him from emoting).
Smith’s Ward is a much more broadly drawn character. There’s an attempt to paint him as a guy with some hidden darkness in his soul, but the character is really just a blank slate upon which Smith imprints his trademark wry incredulity. This is very much Smith in his charismatic popcorn movie mode, not his awards movie mode.
Smith and Edgerton have great chemistry, and watching them navigate the fraught situations their characters find themselves in is a lot of fun. If this were a regular, non-fantasy action movie about two cops who get in over their heads, I imagine it could achieve the same kind of success as Ayer’s previous End of Watch. Unfortunately, the high concept premise just isn’t going to work for some people.
Yes, the visual presentation of the world is seamlessly convincing; yes, the actors all completely commit to their roles; yes, this is, at its heart, a very classically structured action movie. But it’s still a movie where people talk about magic wands, Brights, and Dark Lords. No matter how convincing the execution—and no matter how popular Game of Thrones has become—there are a lot of people out there who just aren’t going to buy into this premise. If, like me, you can, you’ll find Bright to be an entertaining experience. If you can’t, this isn’t the movie for you, despite all of its familiar cop drama trappings.
There’s also the question of how Bright plays on a metaphorical level. With human discrimination of Orcs at the center of Ward and Jakoby’s relationship, Landis’s screenplay is clearly going for an allegory of racial politics (though it pretty much completely sidesteps issues of police brutality that have captured headlines the last few years). It’s really only a surface-level examination of those issues, though, as the movie’s much more interested in hitting the next shootout than it is a real examination of political issues.
Things are also muddied by the fact that Bright doesn’t give us any real insight into the state of inter-human racial politics in this world. Are we are meant to assume that all the human races are more or less united in this world where Elves are the upper class and Orcs the lower, with humans in the middle? Or is there still significant social stratification between Caucasians, African Americans, and Latinos? It’s unclear, but I think its an issue that needed to be addressed.
As far as Netflix’s sequel ambitions go, I’m not surprised at all by the announcement of a second movie. A third act reveal that will come as a surprise to no one leaves the door wide open for more stories with these characters. And while I personally wouldn’t mind revisiting this world, given my enjoyment of the movie, I’m not sure it will achieve the popularity required to earn a sequel. Maybe Netflix’s metrics for a hit are different from a traditional movie studio, but if this were a typical wide release feature I can’t imagine Bright would be a success at the box office, especially considering its reported $90 million price tag (for comparison, the tonally and stylistically similar End of Watch made $57 million dollars at the box office).
Netflix has done a good job checking off the boxes that would typically spell success for a movie like Bright: it’s a fun, funny action flick with A-list talent, in a subgenre with a proven track record. The fantasy elements throw an unfamiliar twist into that formula, but if you’re someone who can embrace the magic and monsters of it all, you’ll probably enjoy yourself. If you’re not, that’s okay, too. After all, there’s no shortage of other things to watch on Netflix.
Bright will be available to stream on Netflix this Friday, December 22nd