'Bright' lights up Netflix with Will Smith cop/orc mashup

"End of Watch" meets "Lord of the Rings" in Netflix's hard-hitting new blockbuster -- if you can see what's going on through all the dark, shrouded imagery.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
4 min read
Matt Kennedy

Will Smith is in it. It's directed by David Ayer, the man behind "End of Watch" and "Suicide Squad". It's possibly the most significant original sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster movie of the year -- and it isn't even in theatres. But is "Bright", on Netflix on 22 December, a bright spot in 2017's cinematic landscape?

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Will Smith brings a touch of Middle-earth to South Central in "Bright".

Scott Garfield

"Bright" starts, ahem, brightly, with a tour of a weirdly skewed Los Angeles. Graffiti reveals a world slightly different to our own: one where orcs, elves and other fantasy creatures live alongside humans -- and not always happily. One paint-spattered wall bears an image of an orc putting a hex on the LAPD under the words "Curse the police", a neat introduction to this world where grounded, gritty ghetto drama intersects with imaginative fantasy.

We follow two police officers, played by Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, as they navigate LA's mean streets and their own strained relationship. Under a ton of green make-up, Edgerton's character is the first orc officer in the LAPD, and he's none too popular with anyone in the LAPD -- including his partner. But the personal differences in this one patrol car are soon dwarfed by bigger problems when our two heroes discover a powerful magic weapon that everyone in the city will kill to possess.

Yes, it's "End of Watch" meets "Lord of the Rings."

It's also sort of "Alien Nation", the '80s movie and TV show about an alien partnered with a human cop. But the fantasy angle feels fresh. Ayer and writer Max Landis make some smart choices, like avoiding the obvious "first day on the job" storyline for the orc cop and instead giving our heroes a backstory with its own twists and turns. The film also hints at a mythology stretching back thousands of years and explaining the racial segregation found in this society that looks a lot like ours.

And there's a neat twist on the usual "fantastic characters as oppressed minority" racism metaphor seen in "Alien Nation", "X-Men" and the like. The orcs may be second-class citizens beaten down in a ghetto, but the elves are the fabulously wealthy 1 percent.


Sword and sorcery meets badge and gun for Joel Edgerton in "Bright".

Matt Kennedy

I was instantly drawn into this alternate world -- I found myself envisioning stories set in other eras of this parallel history, such as the Wild West, Prohibition or Cold War, only with orcs and elves -- but the execution is hit and miss. Noomi Rapace was born to play an evil elf, complete with portentous theme. But like most of the women in the film, she doesn't have anything to say. The elvish-elite thing is set up and then ignored. And it's a pretty straight retread of Ayer's previous gang-banging work -- even recycling the absolute worst bit of "Training Day".

There are some good action scenes, with the highlight being a gunfight involving a car damaging through a gas station mini-market. Overall, the fantastical aspects and Smith's "Bad Boys"-esque grumpy banter make the run-and-gun diverting enough.

After all, it's not like you've paid for a movie ticket, right?

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"Bright" is probably the most blockbuster-y movie so far to debut on Netflix, but it won't be the last. 2018 will see Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services ramp up the competition to own big original movies. "Annihilation" and "Mute" will be among the sci-fi movies going straight to Netflix next year, ceding your local multiplex almost entirely to sequels and reboots. This seems kind of a shame: effects-driven sci-fi and fantasy play best on a big screen where you can soak up the visuals rather than on a laptop or mobile.

Which brings us to the biggest problem with Netflix's new blockbuster. Ironically for a film named "Bright", the whole thing is shrouded in gloom. Most of the action takes place at night, and as we move from darkened crime scenes through darkened metal clubs to darkened streets, the action unfolds virtually in silhouette. The high-contrast cinematography looks super atmospheric but makes it nearly impossible to tell what's happening and who it's happening to. 

Maybe that's a problem with the review copy Netflix sent me. Maybe it's my HD telly being a couple of years old. Maybe it'll look better on a 100-inch 4K UHD OLED TV with HDR -- Netflix loves to talk about Dolby Vision picture quality and Dolby Atmos sound. But how many people have that many acronyms in their living room? The folks at Netflix can't make a big fuss about how you can watch the service on your phone then fill it with movies it's impossible to watch on most screens.

Maybe the big screen is still the best place for effects-driven blockbusters after all. For Netflix, the future's "Bright", even if the cinematography isn't.  

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