Netflix's Bright is, according to Netflix, the best-viewed original movie in its opening week in the history of Netflix, racking up at least 11 million Nielsen-counted views from Netflix customers. Netflix, in other words, has a hit on its hands. But is Netflix's latest any good?
The critics would have you think no, with Rotten Tomatoes slapping a 28 percent fresh on the picture. Audiences seem to disagree, giving it an 87 percent positive rating on the same site. As with all such things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle: Bright is an entertaining-enough high-concept feature with a few glaring holes that fans of its director, cop-corruption auteur David Ayer, will likely enjoy.
Set in something like present-day Los Angeles, Bright posits a world in which man and orc and elf live in a tense sort of peace. As an exercise in world building, Bright is sure-handed—maybe even a bit too sure-handed, assuming a bit too much from its audience. In the opening credits we get a pretty good sense of the world we're entering: orcs form an underclass, performing manual labor and drinking forties on street corners; elves live in ritzy enclaves that are segregated from the rest of society; and humans rest somewhere in the middle, serving as cops and shopkeepers and the like.
Daryl Ward (Will Smith) is one of those cops. He's been partnered, against his will, with Nick Jacoby (Joel Edgerton), the first orc cop in the history of the LAPD. Daryl just wants to get back to work after taking a shotgun blast to the chest; Nick just wants to fit in with a department that despises him, a public that fears him, and a people, his own, who hate him. He's a traitor to orc-kind everywhere, you see, an "unblooded," clan-less outcast. The two must survive a night on the streets of Los Angeles while protecting an elf named Tikka (Lucy Fry) who has stolen a magic wand from a coven attempting to resurrect the Dark Lord, an evil elf who died 2,000 years ago when the races of men, Orc, and Elf came together to stop him. (Sauron, get your IP lawyer on the phone.)
Once you get past all the high-fantasy trappings—pointy-eared magical types and mottle-skinned monsters and the film's magical Macguffin—Bright is more or less a run-of-the-mill David Ayer flick. It's a film about police corruption and partners learning to trust one another and the ways in which unbridled, excess masculinity can serve as a shield against the difficulties of modernity. Bright has less in common with Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit than it does Training Day and Street Kings and End of Watch and Contraband. If you like David Ayer movies and can accept the world into which we have been placed, odds are you'll like Bright.
And I happen to quite like David Ayer movies. Sue me: Bright was a lot of fun.
It's not perfect, of course. Some plotlines feel weirdly under-baked, as when we are introduced to Ward's family and his troubles at home early on, only to have them virtually disappear after spending the entirety of the first 10 minutes of the film with them. And while I like being dropped into a world without having my hand held—the Blade Runner-style of mythmaking by immersion—Ayer and Landis assume a bit too much, leaving some confusion.
I found myself wondering, for instance, just how prevalent the use of magic in society was, how strictly regulated it happened to be. The religious fervor that accompanied the resurrection of the Dark Lord is hinted at but never explored. Magic wands such as the one obtained by Ward and Jacoby are obviously rare and powerful—get a few of them together and you can resurrect the Dark Lord, something the pair desperately want to stop Leilah (Noomi Rapace) from doing—but is there other, lesser magic utilized by the elves to help them maintain their place on the top of the food chain?
Still, Will Smith remains one of our most charming stars; Ward's complaint that he and his partner are "gonna titty-bar-dumbass die" delivered in Smith's trademark "Can you believe this shit?" cadence as they take fire in a strip club is worth the price of admission alone. It's a shame his light has dimmed somewhat in recent years. (If you haven't seen Focus—and, judging by the box office, most of you skipped it—please check it out.) Joel Edgerton's wide-eyed and fidgety orc-cop is amusing if slightly overdone; you get a sense he's the Steve Urkel of the force from the banter between Ward and Jacoby. A little too eager, a little too dorky.
It's not surprising that critics didn't cotton to the film. Max Landis is a frequent (and unfairly targeted) punching bag, and when one of the title cards announced the participation of a company called "Trigger Warning Entertainment" you had to know the movie was in trouble. (Sure enough, the complaining was quick to come and one can't help but feel the angst, paired with the ad-libbed line "fairy lives don't matter," tainted some of the notices.) But Bright is kind of the perfect movie for Netflix, which hopes to compete with the multiplex for every segment of viewer: it's competently made; it's funny; it's well acted with solid star wattage; it's briskly paced. It's perfect for a Saturday night at home—by no means brilliant, but entertaining enough to keep you away from the cinema.
It's more entertaining than Mudbound, certainly. But Mudbound fills another niche for Netflix, an altogether different one. Mudbound is a play for respectability by Netflix, a $12.5 million Sundance acquisition that received an Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles and New York City and has earned some notice from critical groups for its stark cinematography and relentlessly dour reminder that war damages people, poverty is painful, and racism is bad.
Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) marries Laura (Carey Mulligan) and purchases a farm in Mississippi on land worked by the Jackson family for generations. Hap Jackson's (Rob Morgan) boy Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) goes off to World War II, where he fights at the front and is treated as a liberator by the Europeans he encounters. Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) fights in the same conflict and comes back a broken, drunken wreck of a man. But in mid-twentieth-century Mississippi, a broken, drunken wreck of a white man is more valuable than some black fella in a uniform, and Pappy (seriously, Pappy, because no stereotype is too great for this movie) McAllan (Jonathan Banks) makes damn sure everyone knows exactly his place in the world.
Praise has been heaped upon Mudbound despite its brutally slow pacing and reliance on narration to explain to us everything we're seeing on the screen. Not that there's anything particularly interesting or new to see here. The awfulness of the past is well-trod ground at this point. The only aspect of Mudbound that may render it worth watching for casual cineastes is the acting: Rob Morgan's work as Hap is the standout, hitting just the right mix of courage and fear as he balances his pride with the sniveling servility he must show to keep his family safe. Garrett Hedlund, meanwhile, cements his status as the poor-man's Armie Hammer.
I mean, hey, if endless degradation and sadness are your cuppa tea, then click on Mudbound. I watched it twice—once during awards season, when it underwhelmed; again this week to make sure I wasn't missing out on anything when it failed to blow me away (spoiler alert: I wasn't)—and can honestly say that the time would've been much better spent watching Bright, with its far more interesting and amusing spin on racial politics. But that's the great thing about Netflix's movie-of-the-week model: their seemingly bottomless pockets ensure a good cinematic mix of midcult Oscar bait and more entertaining fare with more honestly lowbrow aspirations.
And that's why it's a potential theater-killer. With a growing library of flicks like Bright and Mudbound (and First They Came for My Father and The Meyerowitz Stories and Okja and 1922 and a whole range of other movies) combined with the standup specials pouring forth from the streaming service and a hot new show once every couple months—to say nothing of the increasingly unimportant back catalog of Hollywood titles—it's hard to think of a better value for your dollar than the eleven bucks Netflix's streaming service runs you each month.