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What “Bright” Teaches Us About (Lazy) Worldbuilding

When I reviewed Bright, I mentioned that one of my problems with the film is its worldbuilding. In the end, the film’s promising premise is let down by the lack of attention to the implications of the world that has been created, and it ultimately fails to give the message and tells the story that it wants to.

But we’re in luck! This movie might not have the best worldbuilding of all time, but the worldbuilding that it does have has a lot to teach us. So let’s get some learnin’ done, shall we?


Context Matters

A quick summary of the Bright universe: It’s our world, except there are fantasy creatures like orcs and elves and fairies and shit. There’s also magic, primarily wielded by elves, and a federal agency called Magic Task Force that’s out to investigate it. A couple thousand years ago was a war fought by nine races in which an orc hero, a farmer, named Jirak finally rose up to take down the evil Dark Lord. However, the orcs initially sided with the Dark Lord, and for this reason, are shunned to this day.

It’s worth noting, too, that humans are a common species while elves tend to “rule the world” (according to the wiki). Other than the plot-significant humans, orcs, and elves, the species exist via brief mention or speculation.

See, here’s where we run into problems. This setup via the writers is the context of Bright’s world, characters, and story. And it matters because this context shouldn’t be anything like our real world. The writing, in wanting to have it both ways, has been lazy and succeeded in having it neither.

In short, historical and cultural context constantly influences our lives and our interactions with other people. If you take, for example, the racial makeup of the area you live in, there’s a historical context for that racial makeup. Bright sort of understands this, but doesn’t think this through, and so the world quickly falls apart.

Bright isn’t a world with an alternate history organically woven in. It’s our world. And they slapped a bunch of fantasy races on top of it! This means, essentially, that none of it makes any sense, because they’ve created a world in which things happened, but … why did they happen?

I’ll try to give an example of what I mean.

At one point, Ward, our protagonist, says “Fairy lives don’t matter today.” This is clearly meant to be a reference that we understand to Black Lives Matter. But Ward made the reference. So he understands it too, right? Does this mean Black Lives Matters exists in this world? That would follow that discrimination against black people exists. Does that mean that the transatlantic slave trade existed? Why, if hatred is directed against the orcs instead?

This is just one example of many. If you tease Bright apart, the world is full of these examples, but I didn’t want this post to be ridiculously long. (Though, it could be.) In essence, what I’m getting at here is that everything exists within the context of everything else. Nothing exists in a vacuum and things follow the things which come before.

If designing a world, it matters what happened in the history, because of just how many things are connected. And, as Bright shows, what small statements will have people feeling like your world is falling apart. Like, since Shrek exists in Bright, do you think that ogres (one of the speculated nine races) find the portrayal offensive?

As an aside, do Mexicans still get shit for the Alamo?


Abrakadabra

Everything is connected, right? And this connects to the previous point.

Though you do find alternative history storylines (BioshockThe Man In the High Castle), they’re relatively rare, and this is for a reason. When they do exist, you’ll notice that they diverge at a recent point in history, making the new history that follows seem more existing, as the writer has to make fewer years seem organic in their new history. This is why so many stories, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter, have an underworld for their alternate reality, meaning that little has to be changed.

As I’ve already said, Bright slaps on its sparse alternative history with little thought for the consequences (no, really, do Mexicans still get shit for the Alamo?) but it also does something else: It has the magic out in the open where everybody knows about it, hence the MTA.

BUT.

If magic existed, and so many people had access to it, there’s pretty much no way that we’d live in a world that looked so similar. If magic existed and looked and acted so much like it does in Bright, then why would technology advance so … so in exactly the same way that it did in this world? Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like that doesn’t follow.

In Bright, the Magic Task Force was founded after magic was used to create a nuclear bomb. I question, when such an explosion is caused by a non-bright so much as touching a wand, why this makes any sort of sense. Maybe we would have cars, but in a universe where magic exists technology just wouldn’t be the same. Because technology is a solution to a problem. If we have magic to solve it (even if only some people do, like only some people have access to electricity) then maybe the path to iPhones would be just a little bit different.


Racism Wins Awards

And here’s my most cynical takeaway from this movie. Crash winning the Oscar for Best Picture gave us the great lesson that movies about racism will win you awards, even if your movie understand nothing about the way in which racism operates.

I won’t switch to using Crash as an example, since fundamentally it had the same problem as Bright, but racism, perhaps of your fantasy races, often comes up when worldbuilding so let’s take a quick look at how Bright handles it. (And other movies, but…)

Bright has the war of the nine races, for which orcs are still hated. It has cartoon dialogue which vaguely resembles the speech of a casual racist, but doesn’t actually sound like a casual racist because then you’d alienate them from your viewing figures. (Who’s cynical?) Basically, Bright makes the mistake that many movies make and traces racism back to individuals. And, because these individuals are characters and not people, they have motivations for their racism.

So what you end up with there is a reason for their racism that the audience can understand. A humanized racism. But, see, the thing with racism, and prejudice in general, is that it isn’t logical, because when you are logical you probably know that hating someone on the basis of something like their race is really fucking stupid. You know how they say you can’t logic people out of racism? Well, there’s a reason for that. They weren’t logic’d into it.

Yes, there are people holding these beliefs, but these are people supporting a system. (Much like, in fact, people who don’t hold the beliefs whether they want to be or not.)

Bright knows that racism, you know, exists, but its shallow treatment of it shows a lack of interest in how it operates and effects people. This makes the movie and its supposed message come across as shallow. It makes its world seem less interesting. It makes it seem like its creators don’t care. And that’s a real shame.

It’s very common for fantasy to be an allegory for these issues, but if you choose to do that, then remember that racism isn’t as simple as “An orc killed my dad so now I hate orcs.” It’s far, far bleaker than that.

But I’m really no expert to be speaking on the subject, so I’m going to leave that one there.


Like I said, I think, I could say a lot more about this film, but I don’t want to ramble on forever about a movie that doesn’t seem to have stuck in anyone else’s head as long as it has mine. If you’ve seen this movie, though, by all means let me know what you think. And leave a like on this point if you enjoyed it so I can get a clue as to what kind of content to keep creating for you guys.

Bright is currently available for streaming on Netflix.

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