If you thought nothing in this world could make your head explode more than the orcs-as-juggalos weirdness of last month's Will Smith film Bright, its distributor at Netflix had a surprise doozy to announce this week: the movie has already officially become a franchise. The straight-to-Netflix flick, which debuted on December 22, had its sequel confirmed on Wednedsay.
Smith didn't even have time to establish a series of "welcome to Earth"-level quotes and memes before an executive decided that we needed more modern-day Tolkien in our lives. After seeing the film, we don't necessarily agree. Still, the sequel's news gives us an opportunity to give the buddy-cops-and-orcs film a post-holiday examination. What was actually decent about Bright? What good stuff might a sequel pull off? And why don't I feel all that optimistic?
Spoilers ahead—but, really, don’t fret
Be warned: from here on out, we're in spoiler territory. Having watched the film, I feel confident telling you that at best, I will save you two hours of your life. At worst, I'll beat the movie to revealing its few "twists." (Still, I'll leave some stuff unrevealed.)
Bright begins in what appears to be modern-day Los Angeles, complete with smartphones, ghettos, and convenience stores staffed almost exclusively by Korean clerks. The exception, as you may have gathered, is that Bright's humans coexist with orcs and elves who all speak English (along with respective elvish and orcish tongues). Why is this the case, exactly? Bright doesn't really say. We hear a sliver of lore about a great war thousands of years ago in which orcs destroyed and murdered many humans, but its resolution, and any explanation of how orcs and humans reached anything resembling a peaceful accord, is left open to interpretation.
Perhaps star and executive producer Will Smith thought too much backstory would get in the way of Bright's core plot: that Smith's character, an LA beat cop named Daryl Ward, has a seriously frayed relationship with his partner, an orc cop named Nick Jakoby, played by Joel Edgerton under considerable makeup. Ward got shot by an escaping criminal about a year ago, and he and the LAPD are convinced that Jakoby let the perp get away… because the perp was an orc.
"Orcs stick together," one disgruntled cop mutters. Others blame the hiring of orc cops on "diversity" hiring initiatives.
With that emotional fallout simmering in the background, Ward and Jakoby respond to a call that leads them into an incredibly fortified compound. Its walls are lined with bombs, grenade launchers, automatic weapons, and shotguns taken straight out of a '90s video game. The cops ignore this insanity, because they've found something even crazier inside: a magic wand. (We hadn't heard about magic wands at this point in the film, if you're keeping track.)
The duo also happens upon a terrified, elvish woman in her 20s, and as they try to calm her down, police reinforcements arrive. They, too, ignore the hundreds of weapons on the wall (not even a call-in to the station, guys?) and fixate on the magic wand, concocting a dirty-cop plan to claim the wand and kill the orc cop.
This doesn't pan out (duh, Bright isn't gonna be the arthouse thriller that kills its second lead only 20 minutes into the film). Ward, Jakoby, and their new, shrieking-in-terror friend drive away with the wand in their possession, all while being hunted down by federal agents, an evil elvish magician known as a "Bright" (Noomi Rapace), and a hundreds-strong gang of Latinos. Latino humans, I should add. (To its credit, at least Bright doesn't subdivide its elves or orcs into cultural pools like Pakistani elves or French-Canadian orcs.)
At any point, especially in the sequences where the group runs or drives away, Bright could have injected more backstory about the history of humans living side-by-side with fantasy creatures. The film offers more than a few plodding moments that could have included clear world-building explanations. But these, and so many other parts of Bright, opt to build up one-liner opportunities for Will Smith—though, to be fair, he nails about 50 percent of them. In terms of backstory, however, we only hear two stories told by a glazed-eyes federal agent elf (say that five times fast). These tales are pseudo-poetic with little to say beyond a simple plot-point: this wand has existed for thousands of years, and it can unleash absolute evil in the wrong hands.
Fairies as hobos?
Any summary of the film could describe the cockamamie ending and ho-hum action scenes, not to mention the constant feeling that the script reads like the first draft of a comic book. But in light of a sequel announcement, I'll focus primarily on Bright's lacking backstory.
Even Tolkien's biggest haters have to give the man credit for building such an elaborate universe of origins and wars. Middle-earth is high-level fantasy, yes, but people love that fantasy universe because of how grounded and explained it is. Any film that wants to feature humans, orcs, and elves must contend with that baggage and, therefore, is better off by establishing some perspective. Are we talking straight-from-LOTR plots and lore? Or is there an entirely different origin story?
We never receive that framing. And we don't get even a few relevant hints that apply to the events in the film. The result: every time humans and other creatures face off, viewers are left asking the kinds of prying questions that you'd expect from The Simpsons' comic book guy.
For starters, why are orcs and elves called "races," rather than species? Does that imply a largely non-genetic difference between the humanoids, other than facial and skin differences? We never get a good hint, let alone a firm answer, thanks to misleading information that could go either way. And we never learn about the social progression between these thousand-year-old wars that fuels the nasty smack talk hurled at modern-day orcs.
Bright wants very badly for us to see crappy orc treatment and draw parallels with our own society's racism, but too many dots are left unconnected in terms of how different creatures and different human races figure in terms of social hierarchy. This issue ratchets up during a brief montage in which elves shop, wear fancy clothes, and ride in luxury cars around Beverly Hills (with orc chauffeurs). We hear nothing about how elves figured into these past wars or how they became the supreme elites running everything in LA. If you dump a group of quiet, snooty, big-eared people into the rich part of LA and say they control the whole town, with no further explanations, you let us draw parallels with all kinds of stories and cliches–even anti-Semitic ones.
Worse still is when tiny, humanoid fairies buzz around like obnoxious, food-stealing cockroaches. Ward crushes one with a newspaper until it's gorier than a corpse in an Evil Dead flick. Again, with no backstory or perspective, this just looks cruel. Bright only tells us that these food-begging fairies are funny to murder.
I can draw out an even longer list of logic holes—particularly in terms of people getting themselves killed to play with a wand that, uh, kills most humans who touch it—but where these issues all drag Bright down in its first film incarnation, they also combine to do something bizarrely promising. They leave the series miles of wiggle room to redeem itself.
Let's not forget why over 11 million people clicked on Bright in its first three days on Netflix. People across the world probably said a version of this sentence over and over again: "Orcs in modern society? I want that to be good."
"Gritty fantasy" rarely takes off in feature-length films; it's instead the stuff of Syfy and BBC series, and those takes never veer into Fast & Furious or Bad Boys-styled action and setting. Bright really goes somewhere unique with its "Orc-Tang Clan" premise—and it deserves credit for taking that premise far more seriously than, say, Leprechaun In The Hood. When the film is cheesy or goofy, it's never in a "filmmakers are in on the joke" way. The crew clearly wanted Bright to seem like a badass film.
A sequel could do exactly that. If it simply focused on Ward and Jakoby as returning partners, Bright 2 could force them to hammer out deals with elite, crooked elves, or visit Jakoby's orc family, or have Jakoby break down human misconceptions about orcs by telling lost stories about his people. A sequel would also improve with more definition about the creatures' genetic differences, about centuries of evolving social norms, and about why the freakin' freak a dragon flies around the distant horizon in that one scene! Come on, guys! Dragons!
And if the film is recast to tell a story in this world's future or past, so be it. In the right hands, orcs in, say, Vietnam or World War II could offer a fascinating angle for explaining how all these creatures came together in later eras.
The catch, of course, is that we've already seen how the series' creators operate. Assigning any hope to these dreams of a fleshed-out, extended Bright universe, complete with comic book and novelization and video game stories that connect various countries and eras of Earth to the Bright-iverse in satisfying fashion, is probably foolish. (Heck, it might be the kind of thing a guy would do after sitting through Bright, just to feel better about having seen that stupid movie in the first place.)
But at its best, Bright offers flashes of buddy-cop brilliance, not to mention dedicated fantasy geekdom. With enough leeway to continue the series as an attempt at a franchise, instead of another one-liner vehicle, maybe the Bright crew could pull something decent off. Buddy-cop series like Lethal Weapon are at their most satisfying and thrilling when they make us care about wildly different do-gooders fighting each other before eventually uniting as friends and allies, all while fighting crime.
A human-orc-elf trifecta is a pretty good hot-sauce dollop into that formula, and if we're going to get Bright 2 anyway, we can only hope its biggest geeks win out in pre-production.
Listing image by Netflix