Netflix’s Bright and the problems of world building

Netflix’s Bright is certainty getting a lot of attention, as is the division between critics and fans, genre fans and fans of the movie, and just the general disagreement over whether it is actually “the worst film of 2017” or something to be acknowledged for its originality.

I’ll say up front that I’m glad this movie exists, because it’s bringing new attention to genre fiction in film (or, in this case, genre mashup fiction), and that Netflix chose to make its first big budget movie production something of this nature is not insignificant.

As a long time fan of Shadowrun, I’m 100% behind the aesthetic of fantasy races and magic in a familiar urban setting. But from the perspective of world-building and setting development that are intended to inform a cohesive story, Bright offers many examples of the dangers of being lazy in your approach.

The setting of this movie is so incongruous and lacking in internal consistency that I was unable to suspend my disbelief long enough to be taken anywhere by the story. It seems the writer, director and producers just flat out ignored some simple premises of setting development – namely that when you add an element to a setting, it has a ripple effect over time that affects the world around it.

In Bright we see a lot of world-shaping elements added without any evidence of those elements having had an impact on the development of society over time.

In Shadowrun this works because the story is that the world as we know is developed, and then in the early 20th century magic returned to the world, transforming a section of the population into elves, dwarves, trolls and orcs. And as the magic rose, long slumbering dragons woke up.

But in Bright, we hear about the 2000 year long history of the races having lived together, and yet see little to no evidence of those significant changes to human history having shaped the contemporary world in which the story takes place. Somehow, after centuries of social development that includes humans, orcs, elves, centaurs, dragons, magic, fairies and even more magical creatures that are never seen on screen, they still ended up with modern day suburban L.A.

This blog post arose from a conversation on Twitter, and so this next section gathers together the many questions I have of the setting which I just couldn’t rationalise based on the information presented in the movie.

It started here:

We see no evidence of the many races having had even a superficial impact on the shape of society.

‘Elf-town’ is a part of the city, and elves are described as a race of people ‘running everything’. So either they’ve always been around and in a position of influence, or at some point there was a war or some other takeover when elves took charge. As there is no mention of any elf war, or elf take over, or even any great resentment shown towards elves as you might expect of a conquering people, we can only assume that elves have always been there, and yet have had no more meaningful impact on the shape of society than to fence of a section of a large city.

Humans do that without being magical super-beings.

Elves seem to primarily exist in this movie as analogies for the wealthy, and this movie gives them little more depth of representation as a people than to make them look like the high end of New York or Hollywood. Everyone drives a super car and looks like a movie star, but they live in mundane looking buildings on asphalt streets that are identical to contemporary America.

However, in a world with magic and non-human races, why does America exist at all in it’s current form?

Many of America’s early settlers emerged out of the religious turmoil following the reformation, so in this world of magic and elves and orcs, did the Catholic church still dominate Europe for centuries? And was the reformation a multi-species issue?

How did Catholicism, or any form of Christianity, dominate in a world where an actual war was fought against a ‘Dark Lord’ of unknown magical power? We hear mentions of the orc saviour who unified the races against the Dark Lord (and are then expected to ignore the fact that despite this, orcs were still the subjugated race for thousands of years) yet see no evidence of that having any real influence on religion or belief or societal structure.

And then there’s dragons. Are they apex predators or super evolved magical beings?

Either way, for a dragon to fly, unmolested across the city (as shown in an almost throw-away establishing shot) is to suggest it has some accepted place in society, but where is that reflected in any part of the setting we see?

We are shown a dragon flying over a city that, in the movie, shows no sign of accommodating, protecting against, or interacting with dragons. They don’t even talk about them; Will Smith’s character makes a Shrek reference, but no-one mentions dragons.

This same question applies to the design of cars. If giants and centaurs are millennia-long allies of humans and elves, living in an integrated society, why did they develop cars that neither giants nor centaurs could ride in?

While xenophobia might provide an answer (thanks Litza) the movie doesn’t really bear this out.

The races are millennia-long allies, supposedly living with a level of integration that makes the exclusion and oppression if the orcs a singular thing.

The first orc to become a cop is a big deal – it’s a major subplot of the movie – but when we see a centaur cop being part of an orc beating, no-one bats an eyelid. Centaur police are an accepted part of the police force, suggesting that, in contrast to orcs, they’re a more accepted part of society.

In that scene, not one car looks capable of comfortably accommodating a centaur. There isn’t even a contemporary horse float! (something I imagine centaurs might find a bit degrading). Nor do we ever see such a thing anywhere else in the movie.

We know there’s a centaur police officer who, in stature, stands quite some distance above his human colleagues, but every doorway we see in the police plaza is the same width/height as contemporary human buildings. Do centaurs never come inside? Even as part of their jobs?

Was the centaur, like the dragon, just set-dressing without thought given to the implications of what it means to have centaurs in this world?

We simply see no evidence of society accommodating centaurs.

Finally, there are the orcs. As well as being another fantasy race, they’re super-humanly strong. In onc scene we see an orc single-handedly lift a car to retrieve a kid’s ball.

This means that humans, elves and all the other races had enslaved, or at least oppressed, a race of super-strong warriors for thousands of years, and the world they built off the back of that labour force was identical to contemporary downtown L.A.

So what does all this mean…

For a setting to be engaging and immersive, elements that define the setting have to be evident in the details. Sure, there is a certain amount of handwaving that goes on, but when creating a setting in which you want a story to play out, it is worth considering the broader effects of each new element you add. This ads depth that helps bring the setting to life, and it is what is painfully missing from the world of Bright.

In many medieval fantasy settings, different races are often segregated and, while they may trade and interact with each other, it’s more reasonable to expect such a thing as ‘dwarven architecture’ to be different from ‘human architecture’ to meet their different physiological needs in their own, somewhat closed-off regions of the world. But in an integrated multi-racial society that has supposedly developed over centuries parallel to our own society, many of these gaps are simply too big to overlook.

Still, I reiterate that I’m glad this movie exists and that it’s apparently getting a sequel. If it is successful in kicking off a new trend of urban fantasy in big-budget film and TV production, I just hope that there’s a bit more thought given to the details of the setting in future. beyond “let’s throw a dragon in the background, that will look cool!”

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