What business is Netflix actually in?
That’s a fair question to ask as they take a public victory lap and announce a sequel to Bright, the largest-scale original film to be produced by the streaming service so far.
The sequel is set to be written and directed by David Ayer, a surprising announcement if you know anything about the history of Bright. It started as a spec script by Max Landis, who tweeted at the time, with his signature humility, that he had just finished writing “my Star Wars.” It was sold for a ton of money to Netflix as part of a package that Landis put together. Say what you will about Landis (and he’s recently found himself ensnared in the growing #MeToo movement, something that may well overshadow any conversation about his creative output), but he’s been canny about managing his career as a writer and his creation of “Max Landis” as a character. He wrote Bright as a love letter to David Ayer, something which mystifies me.
I don’t even mean that as a shot at Ayer. I think he’s fine. I like some of his work. I don’t like some of his work. I don’t think I’ve ever lost my mind about his work in one direction or another. I think Fury might be my favorite film of his. I can’t imagine knowing his style intimately enough to write an entire script that’s meant to be an homage to him. That has to be enormously flattering for any filmmaker to hear from a writer, especially when they’re packaging a deal and building it around you. Max Landis was basically the president of the David Ayer Fan Club, and Bright was his gift to the director.
Aaaaaaand now Landis is gone. And based on the evidence of Bright, I’m not sure it makes sense to continue telling stories in this world, but it makes even less sense to continue without the person responsible for the world-building that resulted in the kind of half-built world that Bright inhabits. If you’re a young working screenwriter in Hollywood, “world-building” is one of those things you put on your resume now, a skill set that is arguably more important than “character” or “theme.” Netflix didn’t make any statement at all about the replacement of Landis on the film, and there’s been no reportage anywhere about what went down behind the scenes, so we’ll see if scandal actually lands on him. Whatever the case, Netflix seems to think that they’ll be able to make the sequel cool without Landis there to define what that is.
There are plenty of things about Bright that are “cool” in the way that Hollywood does so well, and it’s worth looking at Bright as not just a film, but also as the particular product that Netflix is in at the moment, because they may not be the same thing. Bright is “cool” in a fleeting, momentary aesthetic sense, and when you look back at Bright in, say, 2040, you’ll be able to pin it to this exact moment in pop culture because of the choices that were made. It’s the same thing Ayer did with Suicide Squad. He makes movies that are going to be as dated in their way as something like Breakin’ is when we look at it now. His soundtracks, his editorial choices, his design choices… all of it. And when you’re in the business that Netflix is in, David Ayer is a perfect filmmaker to hire.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Bright is good. It doesn’t matter if you like it. It doesn’t really matter if anyone likes it. All that matters is that you watch it. You look at the package that Netflix put together and think, “Sure, that’s worth my time,” and then you click on it, and they measured that click somewhere and tally all of the clicks up and then they turned around and made a deal with David Ayer to do the exact same thing again. By whatever their metric is, they succeeded, and they succeeded because they made enough noise to get your attention. If Netflix is going to succeed, they have to make noise. That is their real business, one that they are slowly but surely getting better at, and one where Bright has to be considered a hit for them.
The film is, no matter how much anyone associated with it would deny it, a very familiar form that we’ve seen before. There is a reason you’ve read about a hundred different comparisons to 1988’s Alien Nation — the two films are very similar in intent and in execution. Alien Nation was about an Earth cop having to adjust to working with an alien partner several years after a large alien population took up permanent residence on Earth. There’s a pretty unsubtle message about race in that film, but at least their metaphor makes some degree of sense. After all, it would take a few years for the aliens to assimilate after they arrived, and seeing the first alien police detective makes sense in that context. Bright is an almost breathtaking failure in terms of internal logic, positioning a world where Orcs and magic have always evidently existed alongside humans, but for some reason, we’re just now making one a cop for the first time. If a film like this is going to work as social commentary in any way, it has to make sense. It has to be something that you can read on a pretty immediate level. Sure, it can be complex so it’s not something you get completely on first glance, but if it doesn’t make sense at all, then it doesn’t work in terms of either theme or plot.
The things that Ayer gets right in Bright are the tangible details of what it feels like to use magic in the world of the film, and there are some moments that are effective. But overall, it was impossible for me to fully give myself over as a viewer because I had a hard time understanding what the stakes were, or what the rules were, or what the basic function of magic is in the world of the film. And I’m pretty much an ideal audience for something like this. I get why Landis made the Star Wars comparison in the first place, and it wasn’t just idle ego. It was because there’s a core idea in Star Wars that is very potent as a storyteller, the idea of characters living in a world where they are able to connect to something larger and more powerful than themselves, something that makes them special. It’s an idea that drives a fair portion of our pop culture right now, and if you’re going to do something with it, it should be something more than “What if there’s a chosen one and a prophecy and a glowing thing that characters have to chase around?”
Here’s why it doesn’t matter if the first film was good. Hiring Will Smith to star in a Netflix original movie was brilliant because it made people treat it differently than they would treat a movie starring, say, Sterling K. Brown. Brown would absolutely crush it as a character like this, and because we don’t have movie star baggage with him, we might even have a better chance of losing ourselves in the film with him as the star. But casting Will Smith says, “We are making movies that are exactly as big as Hollywood’s biggest movies, and if we want to, we can pay their movie star salaries, too.”
Netflix made noise with Smith’s casting, and then Nielsen helped the company make more noise when it announced that 11 million people watched Bright during its first three days on the streaming service (inviting journalists to speculate about how well the film would’ve performed in theaters over the weekend, but ignoring the logical problem of the difference between turning on something you already paid for, and leaving your house and paying premium theatrical prices), and then Netflix announced the sequel, and they were thrilled to make even more noise. The worst thing that can happen to a Netflix original is not being underseen; it is making no sound whatsoever. There are entire series they have put out that have vanished without leaving the slightest mark on the cultural conversation, and that is what they cannot afford to have happen. They don’t release ratings, and they don’t release subscription numbers, and the data they collect is used internally only, so it’s hard to really set a metric for success for Netflix.
The one metric that they can’t buy, though, is the one that they have demonstrated an appetite for, and that is what Bright did right. It made the noise they wanted it to make, and so they’ll give Ayer a chance to expand the basic world into something that makes sense. He’s going to have to drop the idea that he’s making any kind of nuanced racial allegory, though, because the foundations of the world-building are so broken that any serious unpacking of how this thing approaches race end with the inescapable conclusion that they totally shit the bed on that front. They’ll just have to lean into “magic and monsters and LAPD” and try to have fun and, yes, above all else, figure out a way to make some noise with it.
Running time: 117 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic