If you haven’t seen Netflix’s Bright, don’t. Despite the presence of bankable stars like Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, it’s a complete clunker from front to back. Netflix spent $90 million on making it, although for the life of me I can’t figure out how. Certainly it wasn’t on special effects. There’s no possible way Netflix could get anything back on that investment, but here’s the thing — they don’t care, and neither should you.
First, let’s talk about Bright. Set in an alternate version of the present where Lord of the Rings-like characters live side-by-side with humans, it presents a vision of Los Angeles where elves live in all the nice parts, orcs are the primary gang force, and humans are sort of in between. It’s a pretty standard cop procedural except for the part about a magic wand going missing. And that’s about the extent of what I can say without talking about how bad this movie is.
It’s instantly dated. You might remember Alien Nation, the film from 1988 or the TV show from the early 1990s. It wasn’t great cinema back then but it was a movie of its time. This feels like just another take on that idea and therefore it instantly seems 30 years old. It’s full of rusty old cliches about corrupt cops and gangbangers and the rotten core of Los Angeles that hides under its swanky exterior. Folks, that’s just a bunch of old movie tropes thrown together and if you want to believe it’s real, there are a lot of other, much better movies where you can indulge yourself.
It’s reductive to the point of being insulting. Instead of introducing new problems into a complex mix of people, this movie actually seems to make race relations simpler even though there are now actually three different races. All the humans are hard-working but perpetually put-upon, and seem to be an analogue for what the writers think black people go through. All the orcs are some degree of Latino stereotype and the elves, well they’re just middle-America’s impression of the Hollywood elite. The bad guys are “rogue elves” but no one really understands why. In fact no one in this film has any motivation to do anything, or any depth, or anything that distinguishes them from anyone. Ever.
And Will Smith really phones it in. This was classic Men in Black era Smith. He plays the exact same character, and even though the writers threw in a line about retirement so that we know that he’s pushing 50, the character sure doesn’t know that. He’s vintage Fresh Prince all the way.
This movie is just tone-deaf and out-of-date. If there was one theme this year in movies, it was upending traditional authority. Whether it was female empowerment taking the place of toxic masculinity in The Last Jedi, African-Americans finally winning over white traditionalism in Get Out, or west Asian culture finally being shown in a normal and non-jokey way in The Big Sick, the big theme was how you didn’t have to be a traditional power figure to be the hero. Here, the cops win and the gangbangers lose, the rogue elements are squashed and traditional society — even though the traditions are weird — prevails. This movie feels like a relic of the old 80s action movies without realizing that it’s a total joke.
All of that is true and it doesn’t make a bit of difference.
This isn’t Netflix’s first feature film but it’s the first one without a Sundancey vibe to it. Netflix has commissioned plenty of original content including films that people took notice of, like Okja. This is the first one that has any sort of ambitions to compete with “traditional Hollywood blockbusters.” It has the explosions, the bankable stars, and the rock soundtrack. While it ends up comparing more to Sharknado than Jaws, it stands as proof that the folks at Netflix can manage a project of this size, even if they can’t pick one. Netflix wants you to think twice before going to a traditional movie theater, and this is just the first shot across the cineplex’s bow. You can bet it won’t be the last.
The real question here is how Netflix itself is going to judge the success or failure of films like this. Traditionally, films are judged either by their creative merit or by the money they rake in. Netflix loves critical acclaim, as shown by their affection for shows like Master of None. A good review can be better than gold in driving Netflix’s brand recognition up. The service that was known just four years ago for mail-in DVDs is now one of the top content creators and they want to challenge HBO, hard.
But really, if Netflix is spending close to $100 million on a film, how are they going to make that money back? I’m sure they have some fancy formula showing how much they have to invest to make sure they’re getting $9 a month from everyone on the planet, but keep in mind Netflix’s original content never makes money. It’s not shown anywhere but Netflix so there’s no traditional “profit.” There are no paid advertisements either, so the only way to know if Netflix is doing well is just look at the bottom line at the end of the year. If they made enough money great, otherwise clearly they messed up.
This won’t be the last blockbuster from Netflix and they’re only going to get better. I think it would be great to see Netflix do with movies what they did with TV — produce sequels to popular films from the past that are comforting and drive new conversations. They’ll likely do that, and they’ll create their own movie franchises to compete with Disney, who is snarkily removing content in order to launch a Netflix competitor.
Believe it or not it was just six years ago Netflix launched Lilyhammer, its first original TV series. It was stupid, to be quite frank. But it taught Netflix how to make original TV and they’ve gotten incredibly good at it. I am 100% sure that they’ll learn from the experience of Bright and that they will dominate movies just like they dominate everything else.