Bright: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on What Went Wrong in Netflix’s Bright!
Written by: Amanda Scherker
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
Bright: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here. It may be the New Year, but we’ve still got a massive hangover from 2017’s final blockbuster Bright, a film that left us cross-eyed and confused. Netflix spent 90 million dollars combining two of our favorite things- the dystopian fantasy and the buddy cop — and left us with the world’s most expensive “WTF?” We’ve been scratching our heads trying to figure how such an awesome concept — think Rush Hour 2 of the Deathly Hallows or Lethal Weapon of the Rings ended up feeling as big as shitshow as David Ayer’s last movie. Like other fantasy films, it SEEMS to be using its imaginary setting to tell a compelling story, while also illuminating truths about our society. However, both its plot AND any potential underlying meaning become completely muddled by the film’s poor world-building, lousy character development, and ill-suited metaphors about American racial politics. So let’s find out what happened in this week’s Wisecrack Edition on Bright- “What Went Wrong. As always, major, minor and vaguely judgemental spoilers ahead.
Head Scratcher #1: Building the World. Every time you see a film, you’re asked to take a leap of faith and accept some kind of proposition – that loving parents occasionally leave their youngest kid behind when they go on vacation or that Keanu Reeves is the most badass assassin EVER. But when you’re watching a fantasy that plays with gravity, object permanence or the entertainment potential of a wardrobe filmmakers have to convince you to take a Mount Everest-sized leap off a peak of disbelief and land with their characters in a distant galaxy, Middle Earth, or a far away distant land in a wardrobe. A good script gets the audience to buy into its world by explaining the rules of that world coherently and concisely… and getting the heck on with the story. Think of how effective Lord of the Rings is in briefing the audience on the history of Middle Earth’s most sought-after jewelry. “It began with the forging of the Great Rings…. Three were given to the Elves…Seven to the Dwarf Lords…And Nine … were gifted to the race of Men… But they were all of them deceived…for another Ring was made… a Master Ring to control all others… One Ring to rule them all!”
With a origin story clocking in at 6 minutes, the film situates us firmly in this complex world. For an even leaner example, consider Star Wars epic rolling title card that introduces you to an intergalactic space war in the time it takes to unwrap a candy bar. Both films orient audiences quickly, and then they’re off to the races. Bright’s origin story, on the other hand, is just plain messy; divulged in sloppy, repetitive, yet incomplete fragments. But before we analyze the world-building strategies, a brief overview of the myth behind it: Two thousand years ago something gnarly went down with a Dark Lord. All the Orcs sided with him, except this one guy, Jirak, who somehow united the nine races together (Who are the nine races?? Unclear – We’ve got elves, humans, orcs, fairies, and, for the eagle-eyed viewer, centaurs) But anyway, they managed to take down the Dark Lord. Except oops, he’s ready to come back, and all his demon elves need to do is bring three wands together. Watch out though, only a Bright can hold a wand, which creates complications. Still, even if the Dark Lord does rise, he can be stopped with magic… That whole subplot never comes to fruition though – probably to be saved for the recently-greenlit sequel that will hopefully come with some clarification. Now, it’s totally understandable that the minds behind Bright wanted to veer away from the dramatically-narrated story-book-style opener of Lord of the Rings. It’s not exactly the freshest turf in the screenwriting world.
Or it… would be understandable, if Bright hadn’t started out with an equally cheesy but less eloquent quote that sounds like it came out of a 10-year-old’s Dungeon and Dragons game. From there, they have an opening sequence of cringeworthy tagging (You’d think with 90 million dollars they could afford to hire a decent LA graffiti artist??) Through this, we learn that there’s inter-species upheaval, police brutality, and… Lizard People roaming the streets? It pretty rude to tease the existence of Lizard People and not deliver, but I digress. These shots of the street explain some atmospheric aspects of the film’s world but we’re still missing the cold hard facts. For instance, who is the Dark Lord? And what did he do? Why are all the social media influencers Elves? We weren’t the only people scratching our heads. After fans expressed widespread confusion as to what the heck was going on with this Dark Lord stuff, Netflix released what amounted to a 2-minute INSTRUCTION MANUAL for the film. In it, we were given a few thousands years of magical history, with factual nuggets like: “Jirak was hailed as the first Bright.”
But if Jirak saved everyone, why do people hate orcs so damn much?? And how did this world’s social order come about? This video feels more like a hastily-concocted admission of guilt that this film was confusing as hell. Another world-building issue is the way the film conveys the limited information it does tell the audience. Which brings us to a fundamental screenwriting rule: “showing vs. telling.” Showing is when a film conveys information through characters’ actions. Telling is when characters chat about the events of the world – the narrative equivalent of an intel briefing for the audience. And boy is Bright is a tell-a-thon. Throughout the film, characters regularly serve as embedded narrators, a strategy that swallows the action and creates stiff, unrealistic dialogue. For instance, the award for worst line in the film goes to Ward’s daughter in this cringer. “Why do you have to be a policeman? Everyone hates policemen.” OK. We get it. Another prime example comes from Ward early on: “Hey look, I got a dude in my car, the whole world is watching, aight. I didn’t ask for it. I don’t want it. But I don’t get a vote.”
First of all, this speech is stupendously heavy handed. Nobody talks like this. Secondly, these facts can be SHOWN in a natural way through the narrative. In fact, Ward makes it PRETTY clear he’d rather be shat on by a Fairy then ride to work alongside Jakoby. Still, the winner for most forced proxy narrator has to be the Smelly Sword-Wielding Bum, who goes from trying to samurai a crowd of people to calmly relaying the entire world’s backstory without even a shower-break. “The army of nice races fought shoulder to shoulder to give you the world you neglect… and now the dark one returns to reclaim orc hearts.” Then as the Feds interrogate him, he gives a plodding explanation of the shield of light, Inferni, wands, the dark lord, Leyla, Tikka, and Bright. This scene is A. boring and B. doesn’t make sense unless you assume federal agents in charge of Magic Crime are as fucking confused by the rules of their world as we are. This strategy continues throughout the film. Once Jakoby and Ward find the magic wand and call for backup, four skeezy cops show up and give us another forced lecture on… How magic works. “That’s magic right there. That’s whatever you want. You want a million dollars? You want ten million? You wanna be taller or shorter or make your dick bigger? You wanna go back in time and marry the girl who didn’t blow you on prom night? That’s how you do it right there.”
They continue to narrate the plot, as if the audience would be absolutely flummoxed by the concept of dirty cops. It’s cleary done for the audiences’ sake, and its corny as hell. The script spoon feeds us huge plot points and small details alikes — Like when Ward, Jakoby and Tikka are fleeing the Mexican gang and Ward yells: “Windows up! Bulletproof!” Is he patronizing Jakoby, or the audience? Who even knows. Just for fun, they remind us: “Bulletproof, Dickhead!” Needless plot exposition, dickhead. Sometimes this tiresome exposition manages to somehow be both forced AND incomplete. For instance, Jakoby gives a snooze-inducing AND scattered explanation of his Orcan Idol Jirak: “He was a farmer who changed the world!” Ok and? “They raised their blades to him, and he was blooded in that very moment.” Ok, so Jirak was a farmer who was… wait what was that? “Blooded in that very moment.” Ok, seriously, what is the deal with this blooding thing? “He’s not blooded. He’s not a part of any blooded clan. He’s like a finger that got cut off the hand. He’s dead to us”
Jakoby, who is not blooded, explains that it’s a sign of honour in the Orc community: “What you did tonight, that’s what it takes for an orc to get blooded. An act of great bravery.” So, are we supposed to think that all these other orcs are brave except Jacobi, the one who professionally puts his life in harm’s way? And what does blooding even MEAN? Jakoby’s sad dental situation as compared to his brethren suggests it’s definitely tooth related. We finally get a peek at this blooding ritual at the end of the film after Jakoby saves Ward and the same orcs who..were… only half an hour ago KILLED him slit their palms because clan loyalty means never having to say you’re sorry. At least that’s showing, not telling. Gold star. If only we understood what the heck is going on or how this crowd of orcs knew that Jakoby had just committed an act of bravery. Is there some kind of orc bat signal? Were they just following Jakoby all night, waiting to shed blood which would magically give Jakoby the perfect orc smile? On the bright side, the next day, Jakoby appears to be teething on his new fangs. Moving on to Head Scratcher #2 – Hero, Schmero – Whether you’re writing about outer space, downtown Baltimore, or a wizarding school in an English castle, the first ingredient of a good story is a hero. Or two. Or three. In Bright we have Ward and Jakoby, and neither will undergo significant character development over the course of the film. Ward begins the film as a snarky dickhead, and ends the film as a snarky dickhead. “Think you a big dog now. You blooded huh?”
Jakoby begins as a toothless insecure guy who can’t stand up for himself, “How are your holes?” “How the fuck do you make a shootout awkward.” “Sorry. Sorry.” and ends the film as a slightly toothed guy who Ward still treats like a tattooed Forrest Gump. “Jakoby, thank the nice officers!” Beyond that, for a film centered on an unlikely friendship, their relationship also seems pretty stagnant. At best, it could be said that Ward learns to “tolerate” Jakoby and not narc on him, which is pretty bleak as far as buddy films go. It’s not surprising that they never change though because they never really had character journeys to begin with. The number one rule in making a compelling hero, according to Aaron Sorkin, is that “Somebody’s gotta want something, something’s got to be standing in their way of getting it. You do that and you’ll have a scene.” Eventually, you’ll have a movie too. Wesley wants Princess Buttercup, Ferris Bueller wants to cut class and party, and so on. In Bright, not so much. Ward doesn’t appear to actively want anything except maybe to lose Jakoby as a partner and keep his job without being a corrupt asshole. That said, he doesn’t pursue those goals in any meaningful way. Jakoby does want to be blooded but, as explained earlier, we don’t really understand what the heck being blooded is or what it means for him as a character. Does he have to submit to clan loyalty and hang out with those Miami orcs? They seemed fun!
While a “want” makes a hero initially compelling, the hero’s choices are what makes a character stay compelling. Apparently, Dustin Hoffman won’t even sign onto a movie unless his character has no less than 40 points of choice in the script. Rather than 40 points of choice, our main guys face approximately 40 points of coincidences that save their butts. Such a coincidence is called a Deus Ex Machina, or a “person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears suddenly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.” Most notable among these is the Wand. In one instance, the wand solves the inconvenience of Jakoby dying. In another, Ward’s totally random status as a Bright turns what would have been an act of suicide into a semi-heroic, 100% coincidental feat. Now for Head Scratcher #3 – When a metaphor is a train wreck. Bright is littered with unsubtle metaphors comparing “interspecies discrimination” with real world racial discrimination. Even Chance the Rapper called the metaphor “a little shallow.”
We more than a little agree, but before we take a deep dive into the meanings at play, we want to give the following disclaimer: Yes, this is a fictional world in which nine races coexist with varying levels of friction. MAYBE the filmmakers had no intention of it being read as a precise metaphor for American racial politics. Problem is, the movie practically BEGS you to draw this comparison. First off, it’s a film about COPS set in LA, a city that was home to one of the country’s most violent race riots EVER, one which was specifically ignited by police violence towards black folks. Bright VERY deliberately draws comparisons between Orcs and black Americans in ways that are too obvious to ignore. From the graffiti to the urban streetwear, visual adaptations of black culture abound. They’re marginalized by other races in society and face victimisation at the hands of the police. In truly sophisticated symbolism, the film suggests the cops would definitely kill the “hooded orc.” Just for fun, one orc tells Jakoby “Your buddy is so happy to say he has an Orc friend.” not knowing that Ward VERY dramatically “doesn’t do friends.”
Oh jeez dude, save it for your Centaur therapist. That metaphor is referenced most disturbingly when Jakoby is hung by a rope during a fight scene with an elf. I don’t need to spell out why putting a character that has been signified as black in this situation is seriously messed up. Oh, and one VERY important distinction between Orcs and black Americans? Orcs apparently CAUSED their oppression, or at least their great-great-great-grand-orc daddies did when they decided to side with the Dark Lord. “Orcs chose the wrong side a long time ago and they’ve been paying for it ever since.” Needless to say, real racial prejudice does not work that way. I.e. Black Americans have zero sins to pay for. When you’re making a metaphor about race, it’s important to be very, very precise – because there’s a real danger that an ill conceived metaphor can muddle an already complicated conversation. To understand why, let’s examine the cognitive function of metaphors. In their influential book, “Metaphors We Live by,” scholars George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explain that metaphors are vital to human being’s understanding of the world around us. That’s because metaphors are a way of taking a human’s understanding of a simple, often physically tangible concept and transferring that understanding onto another, more complicated concept, often one hidden from our senses or difficult to explain.
Lakoff & Johnson argue that when we make a metaphor, say comparing “madness” to “love,” we’re not just momentarily linking two ideas. We’re also transferring an extensive array of our cognitive associations about what constitutes f “madness” onto “love.” As a result, a human struggling to write a Valentine card can explain why they have butterflies in their belly. As a result, “Metaphors may create realities for us, especially social realities leading us to “view.. The metaphor as being true.” So in this case: Lovers be cray. SO what does all this have to do fictional orcs? When a film like Bright unsubtly evokes a metaphor that transfers the viewer’s understanding of the inhuman orcs onto “black Americans” they inherently invite the possibility that viewers will transfer all their cognitive associations about what constitutes orcs — a “race” of homogenous, inarticulate tattooed gangsters on to that of the extremely complex, and most importantly HUMAN group of black Americans. It’s not like Bright will radically harm race relations, but this practice does place it somewhere in an ugly history of American cinema comparing people of color to inhuman “creatures. Before we go further into this, it’s important to address the colorblind elephant in the room: Bright depicts a world where a black man of Ward’s status can exist seemingly without facing bigotry. Or to quote Chance the Rapper, “…racism is gone… cause we hate ork now.”
That’s messed up – More so even when you couple it with Ward’s treatment of marginalised creatures, all of which evoke treatment of black Americans by police officers. Whether he’s saying, “Fairy Lives Don’t Matter Today.” or watching a bunch of Orcs get beat up then asking Jakoby: “I need to know if you’re a cop first or an orc first…” it just feels…odd. In a country where violence against black men by police officers remains heartbreakingly common, depicting a black cop this way just feels way way off the mark. Ward’s character seems to be there to both protect the film against charges of racism (How can a movie be racist when it shows a black man as equal and even getting to be racist himself!) and to make a backwards argument about how “far” black America has come, through an individual representation of a black man whose “made it” and “earned respect.” Now back to the specifics of the film’s depiction of Orcs, which make it even more icky. While Jakoby is an honorable guy with a working moral compass, his depiction is not particularly flattering. For starters, and there’s no easy way to say this: Jakoby is not the sharpest. This is most painfully obvious near the end of the film, when Jakoby cannot stop spilling incriminating evidence to two federal agents. “He turned around, sight unseen, all four of them, bang bang bang bang.”
The film doesn’t make it better when Ward tells his daughter: “All of the races are … uh … different.” While there’s something to be said for respecting ethnic and cultural differences, Ward’s comments seem to suggest the existence of actual biological racial differences. “Do Orcs uhh have mad hops? How many Orcs are ballers?” “Excuse me?” “You f***in heard the detective. How many orcs play pro basketball?” “None. They’re slow, they’re heavy, that’s why half the NFL defensive lines are Orcish. It’s not racism. It’s physics.” And yes, they’re fictional characters who are literally of different species – but the metaphor still evokes black Americans and it feels plain weird. That’s coupled with Jakoby’s clear inability to match Ward’s intellect, which falls into the trap of evoking hundreds of years of junk racist biology that tried to excuse racism on the grounds that people of color were intellectually inferior. At the same time, giving orcs a super strong sense of smell gives them an “animalistic” quality that; Again, makes the metaphor super ugly, particularly when you consider the hundreds-year long history of white Americans treating black American like subhuman beings.
As Lakoff and Johnson explains, “What is at issue is not the truth or falsity of a metaphor but the perceptions and inferences that follow from it and the actions that are sanctioned by it.” Metaphors like the one in Bright, in comparing people of color to inhuman beings, are fucked up even if they had good intentions. And as, Lakoff and Johnson explain, “We define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act.” Though it makes some superficial points about tolerance, and encourages the audience to empathize with Jakoby’s experiences of marginalization, abusive friendships and “kick me” signs, Bright’s overarching metaphor is just plain sloppy. Bright let us down. But given our world of inevitable sequels, threequels and squeakuels, we suspect elves and orcs will be duking it out on your favorite streaming platform for years to come. And we’re not mad at it. Netflix has a cool concept to work with, and, in case you haven’t heard, a disgusting amount of dough to throw at it. Here’s hoping the sequel gives us something special. Thanks for watching, guys. Peace.