BRIGHT is a Netflix original movie that melds fantasy with police procedural. In this film, the world initially looks like ours – but it is inhabited with more than just humans. Elves make up the bulk of the wealthy ruling class, while orcs live in poverty and are the victims of systemic racism. It’s a film with the trappings and characters of a fantasy film, but set in a familiar, modern day world. As a result, it’s a film that tackles big ideas like racism and integration – and I think it does so in a way that is very effective.
The film follows two Los Angeles Police Department officers, Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton). Ward is a veteran officer with an eye on his looming retirement, whereas Jakoby is a rookie – and the nation’s first orc police officer. The two are partnered together involuntarily, and must navigate their prejudices as they become entangled in a case involving a magic wand. In the world of BRIGHT, a wand can only be wielded by a select few people – called “Brights”. The wand belongs to Leilah (Noomi Rapace), a member of an evil group of elves called Inferni. Leilah begins to tear Los Angeles apart as she hunts down the two cops, and the desperation for the wand leads local gangs and corrupt cops to join the hunt too.
What makes BRIGHT such a joy to watch is Joel Edgerton. He’s virtually unrecognizable as an orc – the makeup in this film is that good. He plays Jakoby with an unshakeable moral compass, while also retaining an innocent, child-like quality. It’s the subtle twitching of his ears in quiet scenes, and how he answers bigotry with an awkward joke, that make Jakoby such an emblematic character in this film. He is the face of resistance in a world where bigotry is all too real, and it is so easy to grasp onto this character and utterly and completely root for him to succeed.
Will Smith plays Ward very admirably. Although he still has some of his trademark banter that makes him such a joy to watch, Ward really takes a backseat to his orc partner. In BRIGHT, Ward is a veteran. He’s not the “new hotness” (as Smith was in MEN IN BLACK), and the film never tries to pretend he is. Instead, Ward struggles with his own bigotry in having a partner he doesn’t want. He harbors a lot of resentment toward Jakoby, which makes their relationship feel both real and earned when that resentment inevitably and invariably turns into a begrudging respect. In BRIGHT, both Ward and Jakoby are nuanced and believable, and it makes the film that much better.
The story in BRIGHT is a little convoluted, especially as the film cranks into high gear. The first act of the film is much slower, giving the audience the chance to really get to know the main characters and the world they live in. It’s a world that, like ours, is defined by casual racism. It’s an obvious parallel to make, comparing how orcs are treated in this film to how African Americans are treated in real life. In many ways, BRIGHT serves as an allegory for police brutality and integration. Every single racist line that the officers mutter about orcs could just as easily have been made in real life about a person of color. With Jakoby serving as the nation’s first orc officer, the film also allows for commentary on integration and diversity hires. It’s disheartening to see it in the film, and even more disheartening to quickly realize that this kind of evil exists in our world too.
Once the film kicks into high gear as the hunt for the magic wand takes off, the film sprints to the finish line. Characters are quickly introduced, yet never feel as fleshed out as the protagonists. In particular, Noomi Rapace’s villain was wonderfully menacing yet drastically underutilized. The action sequences that punctuate the film with increasing frequency are a delight, but they do start to drag and instill fatigue as the film moves along and the heroes continue to escape unharmed.
The worldbuilding in this film is fantastic. Whether it’s a single shot of Los Angeles with a dragon flying in the distance or a graffiti image in the background that depicts elves in a negative light, there’s a lot brewing under the surface of BRIGHT. It feels like a long time since I watched a film and then thought more about the lore and backstory that wasn’t explicit in the film – which is a sign that there are great ideas in BRIGHT. For example, the film continuously refers to events that took place 2,000 years in the past. It’s clearly the defining moment of this world, and it seems to replace the birth of Christianity. It’s little moments like this, events that are hinted at, that build this world and let the imagination run wild. I have always loved to theorize, and BRIGHT offers plenty of opportunity for just that.
I really enjoyed BRIGHT, and I didn’t expect to. I thought the story was fun, the acting and dialogue were great, the social commentary was timely and emotional, and the makeup was utterly phenomenal. It’s a film that I continue to ponder long after it has ended, and I am eagerly awaiting returning to the world of BRIGHT for the inevitable sequel. It’s a little messy, as films with a lot of big ideas tend to be, but BRIGHT hit all the right notes for me.