Plot In an alternate present-day reality where humans, orcs, elves and fairies coexist, LAPD officer Daryl Ward is shot by an orc. His partner Nick Jakoby (who is the world’s first orcish police officer) unsuccessfully chases the assailant. Ward recovers and returns to the force. While on patrol, Ward and Jakoby detain Serling, who tells Jakoby that a prophecy has ‘chosen’ the orc police officer and that Ward is also blessed. Serling is then interrogated by FBI agents who want information about two elf sisters, Leilah and Tikka. Serling claims that Leilah is part of the Inferni clan, who are a group of dark elves that aspire to resurrect the Dark Lord – a magical dictator that was defeated 2000 years ago. Serling claims Leilah requires three magic wands to accomplish her goal and that she is a ‘Bright’ – a rare being that can control a magic wand, unlike others who would explode if they touched it. While on patrol Ward and Jakoby are involved in a shootout and discover Tikka, who possesses a wand. Ward calls for backup but when the officers arrive they conspire to take the wand for themselves and kill Ward and Jakoby. Ward instead kills the corrupt police officers. As news of the wand’s existence spreads, Ward, Jakoby and Tikka are chased by a gang led by Poison, who desires the wand. Meanwhile, Leilah also searches for the wand and a fight occurs in a strip club resulting in Leilah killing Poison and his gang. While Ward, Jakoby and Tikka escape, they are captured by a gang of orcs who take them to their leader, Dorghu, who also wants the wand. When they deny Dorghu the wand, he kills Jakoby. However, Tikka uses the wand to resurrect Jakoby and they leave. As using the wand has a detrimental effect on Tikka’s health, Ward and Jakoby take her to a magical pool to heal her. However, when they arrive, Leilah and her minions appear and a fight ensues. Ward eventually holds the wand and to everyone’s surprise, does not explode – meaning he is a ‘Bright’. He uses the wand to kill Leilah while Tikka disappears in the aftermath. Later the FBI, Ward and Jakoby agree on a version of the story to tell the public in which there was no wand or corrupt police. At a public ceremony, Ward and Jacob are commemorated for their heroism while Ward notices a familiar face in the crowd: Tikka.
Film note Receiving a Rotten Tomatoes score of 26 per cent Netflix’s first tent-pole film Bright, was a critical disaster. IndieWire even claimed it was “the worst film of 2017” (Ehrlich). Nevertheless, Bright remains one of the most important films of the contemporary moment as it demonstrates that Netflix is now funding big-budget blockbusters. Coupled with Netflix’s long tail economic model and its use of algorithms and ‘Big Data’, Bright represents a significant challenge to the ‘Big Six’ media conglomerates thereby amplifying claims that the company is moving audiences away from the box office and towards their streaming service. Furthermore, Bright is part of a cycle of Hollywood films, including Get Out (2017) and Black Panther (2018), that comment on contemporary race relations. However, despite its seemingly progressive approach, Bright’s social commentary is conducted in a flawed and contradictory manner, thereby demonstrating tensions within US culture but also between the director’s interests and Netflix’s commercial aspirations.
The Netflix blockbuster and corporate worldmaking From an industrial standpoint, Bright represents two core ideas: it challenges the perception of the kinds of films Netflix can produce in terms of scale while also furtheromg the case for the Netflix distribution model against the more traditional box office release. Since its first attempt at feature film production in 2015 Netflix has been increasing its yearly output of films. In 2016, the company produced eighteen films, an annual number which rose to 41 in 2017. While a handful of these films were critically lauded – Okja (2017) and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017) were both screened at Cannes Film festival – up until Bright, none could be categorised as major blockbusters in terms of budget, scale and mass appeal. As a result, many industry executives downplayed the threat of Netflix. For instance, James McQuivey at Forrest Research claimed: “Despite Amazon’s (and Netflix’s) success with TV shows, it’s very unlikely they’re going to have a blockbuster movie on their hands […] A nice niche picture, maybe. In the horror genre, easily; or perhaps something edgy and artsy, but not the kind of movie that’s going to run two months in theaters [sic]” (qtd. in Lang and Graser). However, from the very moment Bright’s opening credits roll and audiences witness blue ‘magic’ emanating from behind the Netflix logo (the company usually leaves this production title standardised for all its content) the streaming company signifies that this is a different kind of Netflix film.
To start, Netflix defeated Sony and Warner in a bidding war and provided Bright with a reported $90m budget (Dyer), making it their most expensive film to date. They also secured the services of David Ayer and Will Smith who have both proven their worth commercially – Ayer directed Suicide Squad (2016) the year before which grossed over $746m worldwide while “in the years they are released, Smith’s films [have] consistently ranked amongst the top ten grossing titles at the domestic box office” (McDonald 2012). Furthermore, unlike Netflix’s previous films, Bright is predominately driven by action and large expensive set pieces such as the scene in a petrol station where a car is driven through a building and bodies are thrown dramatically through the air culminating in a dramatic explosion.
However, despite these efforts, critics such as Ryan Lambie criticised Bright’s production quality, claiming: “Bright looks noticeably ramshackle in places – Netflix may want to beat Hollywood at its own game with this edgy and violent thriller, but its production values barely exceed a typical episode of, say, a Marvel TV show.” This criticism may be down to the association of Netflix with television but also because Bright’s budget was still less than half of a typical blockbuster franchise such as a Marvel or Star Wars film, which averages at approximately $200m. Consequently, focusing on a world that resembles modern day LA may have been an economic as well as creative decision as it requires less expensive CGI and set building.
However, Netflix executives defended the film with CEO Reed Hastings claiming, “the critics are pretty disconnected from the mass appeal” (qtd. in Wallenstein). Hastings’ claims seem justified as Bright’s achieved an audience score of 86 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. Furthermore, Nielson estimates suggest that Bright received more than 11 million views in its first three days of release (Spangler). Using the average cinema ticket price, Spangler roughly calculates this to equate to a $100m box-office opening weekend for Bright, which is roughly equal to the domestic box office gross for Wonder Woman (2017). While Netflix refuses to disclose official statistics, the company argues that Nielson underestimates viewer numbers as it does not consider international views or those on mobile devices and computers. Consequently, due to the film’s popular appeal with audiences, the company has greenlit a sequel.
However, rather than a theatrical release, Bright operates by a different set of rules as Netflix’s economic model relies on monthly subscriptions rather than theatrical release and ticket sales, thereby functioning as an example of long tail economics. As summarised by Kevin McDonald, this model makes it “possible to build a profitable business on the low but steady demand for a wider range of inventory as opposed to the fleeting but large-scale demand for the most popular goods”. Therefore, rather than risking $200m budgets on precarious box-office releases, Netflix can rely on a low but steady income of monthly subscriptions while focusing on the long-term life of a film and the wider ecology of its archive. In addition, due to Netflix’s rigorous algorithmic analysis of its subscribers’ viewing habits and tastes, it can target prospective viewers indefinitely. Bishop notes some of the techniques used to market Bright:
Mentions of the film will pop up in the browsing experience of users that the service has determined are most likely to respond to the film’s mix of gritty action and magical fantasy […] Someone who watches a lot of fantasy shows might get a Bright thumbnail that features Lucy Fry’s elf character, for example, while fans of director David Ayer may see one emphasizing Smith and Edgerton’s characters in their LAPD uniforms.
This targeted and personalised advertising not only increases the number of viewers but also drives down the marketing budget as Netflix can spend less on expensive TV slots or billboards, consequently allowing them to invest more in production. Furthermore, this could also explain Bright’s positive audience response as in contrast to critics who are required to watch all films, Netflix will target subscribers who are likely to enjoy Bright specifically and will consequently give the film a positive review. This complicates Hasting’s previous claim, as the reality seems to be less about “mass appeal” than algorithmically-targeted appeal.
Furthermore, Netflix uses its algorithms to inform what shows and films they produce. For instance, Kevin Spacey claimed that when pitching House of Cards (2013-) “Netflix was the only network that said, ‘We believe in you. We’ve run our data and it tells us that our audience would watch this series’” (qtd. in Auletta). A similar conversation most likely took place in Bright’s case and would explain why Netflix placed such confidence in the film by greenlighting the large budget and the R-rated script that features scenes such as Leilah (Naomi Rapace) slitting the throat of a disabled gang-leader – a scene that may have been a potential deal breaker for a regular Hollywood studio as this age-bracketed content would reduce the potential for box office sales in order to recoup the large budget. Therefore, in comparison to a regular studio, Netflix not only allowed Ayer more freedom to take risks with the R-Rated content and big budget but paradoxically, that decision was the product of an algorithm that works to mitigate risks.
Although differentiated from Hollywood studios in terms of its distribution platform and economic model, Bright mimics many of the same synergistic techniques indicative of contemporary Hollywood through its use of narrative world building and transmedia storytelling. As Henry Jenkins claims, in Hollywood “storytelling has become the art of world-building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work” (114). Bright mimics this method as throughout the film it alludes to a larger world that extends beyond the singular film. For instance, at the beginning of the film, we are presented with a quote from “The Great Prophecy 7:15”. We do not know where the prophecy is from and its provenance is not revealed. Similarly, the first sequence of the film introduces the narrative world through graffiti art and murals while characters allude towards a rich history where the ‘Dark Lord’ reigned only to be defeated by the ‘nine armies’ lead by an orc called Jirak some 2000 years earlier. Similarly, other details such as the ‘Shield of Light’ and mythical creatures such as dragons and centaurs are teased to set up a universe that could be explored in sequels.
However, many critics complained about how little thought seemed to have been put into Bright’s universe. Ehrlich notes that the idea that “‘Orcs love death metal!’ is the kind of cute, insufferably trite ‘bad idea’ that a writer might use to start a conversation about creating a rich modern fantasy world, not to end one.” While Robey claims, “Bright never convinces you that it has thought through the rules of its alternate reality, with the result that you can’t suspend disbelief, and it isn’t a reality”. Therefore, again Bright could be criticised for being too transparently commercialised or the product of an algorithm, as Mike Antonucci would put it, an obvious example of “smart marketing” rather than “smart storytelling” (qtd. in Jenkins 104).
In addition to setting up a story to span across multiple film sequels, Bright’s world also spreads across multiple media. Jenkins describes a transmedia story world such as this as indicative of convergence culture where media flow across multiple platforms due to the alliance between large corporations with diverse interests (2). In addition to converging with the television and internet industry through Netflix, Bright also extends to the music industry as not only did the company commission a soundtrack featuring popular artists such as Machine Gun Kelly, A$AP Rocky and alt-J (which audiences can buy or stream in the form of an album thereby creating extra revenue) Netflix also produced music videos for four of the commissioned songs prior to the film’s release.
This convergence of industries also affects the aesthetics of the main film. As Angela Ndalianis claims, “distinct media cross over into other media, merging with, influencing, or being influenced by other media forms” (25). Consequently, Bright’s visual style is analogous to a music video. For instance, in the ‘Danger’ music video, heavily stylised footage of Migos and Marshmello dancing in the same sets used in Bright intercuts seamlessly with footage of Ward and Jakoby in the strip club. Similarly, the music video for ‘Broken People’ uses the same footage from the first sequence of Bright, with the political graffiti now replaced with lyrics from the song. The fact that footage from the music videos and from the film can be cut together so seamlessly demonstrates how the convergence of industries has led to the aesthetic styles of two different media forms blurring into each other.
Ultimately, Bright is an example of Netflix challenging the rules of production, consumption and distribution of a typical theatrically released film while simultaneously borrowing the corporate and narrative techniques of contemporary Hollywood. Bright demonstrates to audiences that Netflix can produce the kinds of big blockbusters they are used to watching in cinemas but in a way that is more convenient (audiences can watch the film in the comfort of their own home or on mobile devices) and cheaper (in the UK a Netflix monthly subscription is currently £7.99 a month compared to a single cinema ticket, which averages £7.49 (UK Cinema Association)). While Bright still fails to match the big blockbuster franchises in terms of scale and critical acclaim, it sets the scene for 2018 when Netflix intends to release over 80 films (more than any other Hollywood film studio) (Rodriguez) and with Disney planning to release their streaming service in 2019, this new economic model could have major implications for blockbuster film production in the years to come.
‘Fairy lives don’t matter’ While Bright revolves around a mythical world consisting of orcs, elves and fairies, it uses this thinly veiled metaphor to comment on contemporary US race relations. However, while the film’s commentary seems liberal and progressive, its politics contains many contradictions, reflecting tensions between both left-liberal and ring-wing attitudes towards race.
The central analogy within Bright revolves around its social hierarchy. The mostly light-skinned elves are the most powerful as Daryl Ward (Will Smith) claims they spend their time “running the world and shopping”. They also have their own segregated districts with golden guardrails, which work to signify their wealth. Humans are below the elves and represent the middle to working class while the blue-skinned orcs represent an institutionally discriminated underclass. There are also fairies who are treated like vermin, but the film pays less attention to this group because as Ward provocatively claims “fairy lives don’t matter today”!
To start, Bright initially demonstrates a progressive, left-liberal attitude towards race. By making the elves light skinned, Bright points towards structural racism in American society and depicts how an ‘elite’ who control most of the wealth are predominately white in contrast to the poorest who are predominantly people of colour as represented by the darker skinned or ‘coloured’ orcs. This statement holds true as according to the Federal Reserve, “the typical African-American family had a median net worth of $17,600 in 2016. In contrast, white households had a median net worth of $171,000” (Jamil Smith). Furthermore, during the film’s opening credits, a montage of graffiti art further draws the connection between orcs and African Americans as it suggests they are victims of systematic racial oppression citing images of police brutality thereby triggering associations with civil rights movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter’.
In addition, Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), “the world’s first orcish police officer”, attempts to break the racial apartheid within the police force while higher officials attempt to orchestrate his downfall in order to maintain the racial hierarchy. When Pollard confronts Ward in the locker room using racial slurs and suggesting Jakoby is a danger to other police officers, the film models Butler’s (following Fanon’s) critique of racial discrimination: “The black body is circumscribed as dangerous, prior to any gesture, any raising of the hand and the infantilized white reader is positioned in the scene as one who is helpless in relation to that black body.” (qtd. in Sharon 76).
Moreover, Shohini Chaudhuri’s equivalence of aliens and immigrants in her analysis of District 9 (2009) is equally applicable towards Bright; if we replace aliens for orcs, the film “confronts audiences with their own xenophobic attitudes, magnifying the stereotypes to make them recognisable” (136). Therefore, like District 9, Bright visually represents derogatory notions of immigrants as almost ‘subhuman’ by representing them through the subhuman creature of an orc. These issues are pertinent in a post-Obama political climate where racial tensions have been amplified due to the controversial policies of President Trump (the Mexican-border wall, his treatment of the ‘DREAMERS’, the ‘Muslim travel ban’), the rise of white supremacist groups and high-profile cases of racist police brutality. In fact, the threat of the Dark Lord could represent a contemporary fear of a right-wing, white supremacist president – the Inferni’s desires to resurrect a dictator and revert to a time where other races were subjugated fits a version of making “America great again”.
Although, in terms of the human characters, Bright portrays a seemingly post-racial society. Ward is married to a white woman and they have a mixed-race child, while the police station is filled with men and women of a variety of races. Furthermore, Smith’s casting as an African American lead actor remains significant amidst a lack of diversity in the industry as highlighted by the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite campaign.
However, Bright is also deeply problematic in its depictions of race. Firstly, the allegory creates distance from the political points it is making as right-wing or apolitical viewers might choose to focus purely on the fantasy world rather than social commentary. Secondly, the use of analogy could amplify negative stereotypes. As Rose claims:
Bright’s orcs are somewhat dim-witted. They don’t get humans’ sophisticated use of irony and metaphor. Does that suggest black or Latino people are the same? If not, why is the movie’s orc culture directly modelled on theirs?
Furthermore, while Jakoby affords our sympathy, he has little agency and is forced to conform to human culture; he files his teeth, he is not allowed to listen to orcish music and compared to other orcs such as Dorghu, he has a more human name. In fact, Jakoby is only rewarded after demonstrating this assimilation in addition to immense resilience and self-sacrifice (which he demonstrates by letting Dorghu kill him to protect the wand and save his non-orcish friends). Therefore, his story represents a narrative tinged with a conformist ideology which suggests that to succeed, an individual must struggle silently against inequality, hide their heritage and collude with their oppressors in order to eventually become them. In addition, it is ultimately Smith’s character who plays the ‘white saviour’ stereotype as he saves Jakoby from his oppression due to his privileged status as a human ‘Bright’ who can use a wand. As Richardson claims, “the American as both oppressor and liberator [is] a myth which deprives native peoples of agency” (172).
As a result, Bright’s treatment of race feels exploitative and opportunistic. Many critics felt that the film’s allegorical racial commentary lacked nuance and was “shallow” (Rose 2018). Moreover, others claimed the racial commentary felt like algorithmic box-ticking as the film seems less interested in racial tensions than the story revolving around the magic wand and Ayer’s infatuation with paraphernalia and internal politics of the LAPD (Lambie).
In fact, if the orcs are meant to represent an oppressed culture, it is questionable that the orcs that get the most screen time (Jakoby and Dorghu) are played by white actors. Albeit not an exact equivalent, these white actors could be committing a version of ‘blackfacing’.
It is interesting to contrast Bright to Black Panther (2018), which was directed by African-American director Ryan Coogler and had a creative team who were generally more open-minded and sensitive to depictions of race. In addition to providing a more nuanced outlook on race than Bright, Broadnax claims Black Panther is ‘steeped very specifically and purposefully in its blackness […] It’s the first time in a very long time that we’re seeing a film with centered black people, where we have a lot of agency […] [they] are rulers of a kingdom, inventors and creators of advanced technology. We’re not dealing with black pain, and black suffering, and black poverty’ (qtd. in Amatulli). Perhaps this contrast demonstrates that Bright is a product of predominately commercial interests and a Netflix algorithm rather than an organic idea that has been cultivated and thought through by creatives passionate about reversing racial injustice.
While the film’s final image suggests an image of America that is all-inclusive as we cannot distinguish races due to our shared humanity, Bright’s racial politics are ultimately insincere and inconsistent. Even the last image can be picked apart as no significant structural change has taken place; fairies are still dehumanised (before the credits roll a rabid fairy screams towards the camera); while paying tribute to the police force suggests there are only a few ‘bad apples’ rather than admitting that the system is institutionally racist.
Hollywood seeks where possible to find consensus and this leads to the possibility of contradictory or ambiguous texts where the stress points of the culture wars can be seen. This desire for consensus can be clearly seen in Bright and is a consequence of Netflix aiming big with an expensive blockbuster rather than catering to niche audiences, which their long tail model is more suited towards. However, perhaps like Black Panther, if Bright does indeed become a franchise it may redeem itself in a later movie. Perhaps there may be a sequel where fairy lives do matter.
Ultimately, Bright displays evidence of what Richard Maltby calls ‘multiple logics’, the consequence of Hollywood operating as ‘a dynamic matrix of conflicting voices, held together in tension by the forces that cross it. In this complex network, a movie is most usefully understood as a site crossed and shaped by many (often contradictory) intentions and logics, each transforming it more or less visibly and more or less effectively’ (35). Therefore, while Bright is a film that potentially paves the way for the future of the film industry in terms of distribution, in many ways it is representative of the typical ‘commercial aesthetic’ of contemporary Hollywood as it reflects tensions within and between technology, society, filmmakers and the industry.
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Written by Hansel Rodrigues (2018); edited by Guy Westwell (2018), Queen Mary University of London
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