Alien Nation goes Tolkien

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Bright (USA 2017) Dir: David Ayer

Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace

The new feature length film from Netflix takes the tried and tested buddy cop formula and combines it with a boatload of high fantasy tropes to come up with this intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying action flick. The film is set in a contemporary looking Los Angeles, resembling our own world barring the fact this is a reality in which humans rub shoulders with Orcs, Elves, Dwarfs, Centaurs and Dragons, and where magic (the title refers to the epithet applied to a wielder of said power) is a fact of everyday existence.

The conceit of mashing together a contemporary action setting with fantastical elements has been done on screen before of course, most memorably in the 1989 James Caan comeback vehicle Alien Nation and its spin off tv show. Bright sticks pretty close to the formula of that movie with the mistrustful Officer Daryl Marks (Smith) and his Orc partner Nick Jakoby (Edgerton) drawn into a conspiracy bound up with this alternate world’s Tolkienesque denizens. The Orcs are a marginalised and oppressed group due to their siding with ‘The Dark Lord’ over a thousand years ago during an event referred to as the Battle of the Nine Races. Jakoby is the first Orc to make it successfully on to the police force and faces all the usual obstacles that racial prejudice throws up in our own world, not least the antipathy of his partner Marks who blames him for a shooting injury he suffered, and his suspicion that Jakoby let the perp, an Orc, free.

I won’t give too much away here, save that the plot sees our protagonists in pursuit of a ‘magic wand’, a super powerful weapon in this reality (‘its a nuclear weapon that grants wishes!’) that holds the key to resurrecting The Dark Lord and plunging the world into chaos. What this means exactly, and who or what ‘The Dark Lord’ is, and his motivations are left to the audience’s imaginations (or more likely the inevitable sequel, if reports of the film’s success is anything to go by.) The wand is being pursued by a cult of kung fu kicking Dark Elves led by Noomi Rapace (inhabiting a role she could have been born to play) who are intent on wresting it from a runaway member of the cult who has fallen under the protection of Marks and Jakoby.

The script does some nice worldbuilding mainly through snippets of dialogue and the odd Easter egg hidden across the film’s set pieces, and there are plenty of strands left hanging that can be picked up and explored in any future sequels or series. But the film ultimately fails to have the courage of its convictions, and the fantasy elements feel too much like afterthoughts bolted on to a contemporary action film with a light sprinkling of social conscience added to the brew. Unfortunately it is this element of the film that requires a defter approach (the Orcs are a spectacularly unsubtle metaphor for African Americans.) Director Ayer seems to want his film to be Colors crossed with The Lord of the Rings, but the end product lacks both the gravitas of the former and the fun spectacle of the latter. The absence of a lightness of touch in handling the race metaphor only reinforces the feeling of incongruity at the heart of the film’s approach to its central conceit.

There is a lot of genre stuff that does the racism metaphor a lot better, not least the aforementioned Alien Nation, but also X-Men, although the best of the bunch has to be the scabrous comic strip Strontium Dog, from the pages of celebrated British anthology comic 2000AD.

draining the swamp

Strontium Dog: Portrait of a Mutant (1981) – a typically scathing 2000AD take on the issue of racial injustice.

My other big fault with Bright lies with the script’s failure to explore any of the logical consequences of the film’s premise. For instance; would our civilisations, history, and economies not be radically different if humanity shared the planet with other sentient races and magic was prevalent? Has our history in this alternate world unfolded in the same way (wars of religion, the world wars, communism, the Cold War)? What about religion? I know this is supposed to be an action movie, but the likes of other alternate reality genre movies like Watchmen and Escape from New York get across more of the internal logic of their respective settings in their first ten minutes than Bright does in its entire running time.

And then there is the ubiquitous Will Smith, bestriding the production like an unwanted wedding guest. Why Netflix thought to saddle the film with a Hollywood A lister when it is the novelty of its central idea that should have been the star is a mystery. While Smith proved his serious acting chops with Michael Mann’s staid biopic Ali, his cop movie credentials are forever stained by the execrable Bad Boys, and his presence here serves only to distract from an an already thin plot. Joel Edgerton does a fine job under the prosthetics however, and it would be an injustice were he not to be given top billing and made the central character in any follow up. Smith’s character seems rather superfluous anyway, and in this day and age having a monstrous looking creature as the hero isn’t the risky approach it once might have been. Worked for Hellboy after all.
NB – as I mentioned above, the Strontium Dog comic book did the whole aliens/mutants as a metaphor for racial prejudice miles better than anyone else before or since. Created by the team of writer John Wagner (A History of Violence) and Carlos Ezquerra, who also created Judge Dredd, the strip is steeped in the cynical tradition of the spaghetti western and was born amidst the punk movement, economic dislocation and racial tensions of late seventies/early eighties Britain. The collected editions are available from Amazon, though I particularly recommend Portrait of a Mutant (1981) and its sequel Outlaw (1984) as two of the greatest, and certainly most underrated British comics of the era.

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