Bright (2017): World Building Done Right

No plot spoilers ahead!

Many television series and movies have been set in tolkienesque high fantasy worlds. The Lord of The Rings, The Hobbit, The Shannara Chronicles, The Chronicles of Narnia, Seventh Son, Willow, Dragonheart, Eragon, Game of Thrones, and Merlin are just a few that I can think of off the top of my head. Bright is another addition to this growing subgenre that lies under the umbrella of high-fantasy.   

This movie, which was released on Friday December 22, reimagines a world of medieval elves and orcs in contemporary Los Angeles. Where all types of fanciful races exist side by side with modern humans. This premise seems like it would be ripe with potential conflicts, possibilities for interesting motifs, and the ground work for intricate histories. Indeed, the movie was a surprise delight that stayed, for the most part, far away from genre-specific clichés.

One thing that it navigates well is world building. Bright doesn’t originate from any kind of source material. Yet it finds a way to provide enough provoking and solid detail to build a world sufficient for a 118-minute-long movie. However, this isn’t perfect and sometimes details are given that add no dimension to the world being built or the detail just has no consequence. On the whole however, the details are substantive and cast a bit of movie magic on the viewer as he/she goes further down into the cinematic rabbit hole.

The way in which Bright disseminates said information about its high-fantasy world is also important. For the most part, it gives details subtly throughout the film and is content with leaving some amount of mystery surrounding them. These details aren’t forced into conversations and aren’t seemingly random for the most part.

The conundrum that all writers of fictional worlds face is how to introduce, and explain, their world to the viewer, or reader, without it seeming unnatural and distracting. How does a writer naturally introduce unnatural concepts? Most of them try to hint to details of their fictional world through exposition or telling conversations between characters sprinkled throughout. Or they have long-winded speeches a character will give to a protagonist or important side character. There isn’t an exact answer to which method, or combination thereof, is best. However, the subtler forms, when done correctly, tend to do the trick.

This point is important because it can make or break especially high-fantasy worlds. If the details aren’t interesting, or aren’t disseminated well, it pulls the reader out and turns the work into a caricature of itself. I was happily surprised when I noticed that Bright handled world building fairly well.

Let us get more specific with Bright though. I liked the costuming and makeup, especially for the orcs. Which is why I was disappointed upon hearing that 60 orc mask artists who worked on the project were not given credit for their work in the end-of-movie credits. The skin, their teeth, and their size created the notable markers of orcs as fantasy fans have come to know them, but also kept them human and not as the abjectly “other” villainous race. Unlike the twisted, and often times grotesque, orcs and goblins depicted in the Tolkien movies.

The settings also seemed to merge the cultures of the races with their surroundings. I’m reminded of the Fogteeth clan party and the ordered and stylish elven quarter. But I am even more interested in the way the orcish church seemed architecturally to display the distinct orc culture while also blending into its surroundings of impoverished Los Angeles. It seems accurate as it reminds one of the great Norwegian wood churches called “staves” which could be in reference to the orc’s conceptual foundation lying in Scandinavian folklore and mythos.

Altogether the costuming and scenery seemed natural, blended well with the background, and stayed independent while relying on the genre to give it direction.

I would also say that the co-protagonist Jakoby and his development seemed especially cathartic. His mannerisms and attitude attach the viewer to him early on. This attachment pays off later in the film. Joel Edgertons performance as Jakoby is believable and not too hammy. His co-star however, seemed a bit more unnatural. Putting a mustache on Will Smith and telling him to stare confusedly into the camera doesn’t make him believable or the movie any better. Smith isn’t, however, helped by the writing of the character Daryl Ward. Often times this character’s motivation seems unclear and muddied by not knowing what he is. A cop about to retire or a man with a mission? Is he tired or energetic?

However, there is one action scene in particular, which Ward initiates, that was unexpected and quite thrilling.

I would say the thing that keeps it from being good is that sometimes it pretends there is tension in the scenes where there is none. Or there are concepts and ideas that go unexplored. Like the internal investigation cops, or the wand, or brights, or a federal magic governmental organ. There are just some scenes that fall flat that the audience doesn’t, nor should it, care about.

I also felt that the bad guys were too amorphous and too general. It’s another movie where the “bad guys” engage in pure malicious evil simply for the sake of evil. Their motivation is too general and not given dimensions.

All in all, however, I enjoyed the film. It almost feels like Jakoby and Ward are going on a modern-day quest. Like they are D&D characters set in a new and inventive world. It is like traditional questing but with shot guns and cholos.

This movie was a good introduction, but I want to see more. Netflix should continue with this unique world-building and give us even more content. Luckily a sequel has already been ordered by Netflix. Which, by the way, will make it the first ever streaming-only movie franchise. In the next iteration they should connect concepts better. How might one world-building detail interact with another? The sequel should also continue with a solid plot, and try to earn the suspense of the audience a bit more. Like many franchises, this second movie could destroy it if it remains constantly listing and vague. If done right though, it could be a start to something special. However, I won’t be holding my breath.

This movie has generally received negative or lukewarm reviews. As of the publishing of this article Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 30%. I, however, feel that most of these reviewers remain picky, contrarian, and subconsciously (or sometimes consciously) discriminatory towards high fantasy. I also think these reviews have missed the focal point of the movie. The reviewers have criticized it as a failed social commentary and as a lackluster attempt at cop drama. But at its core this movie is about fantasy elements interacting in and with a contemporary setting, the rest is secondary. I give it 4/5, it’s a good movie with one or two notable screw ups. A good watch but don’t expect perfection.