Bright and verisimilitude: in which I write a review

This post contains major spoilers for Bright. If you haven’t already watched it, you should probably see it before you read this. You’ve been warned.

I know I’m in a little late to the game here, but I finally got around to watching Bright, one of the latest of Netflix’s movies to come out with some mixed reactions. The movie is essentially based around a question that sounds a little bit like something a literature grad student would ask after a few too many PBRs: what if you took a fantasy world and set it in modern times? And that’s essentially the Bright universe. Set in LA, the story takes place a couple thousand years after the defeat of The Dark Lord, an event that isn’t fully explained other than the fact that the orcs decided to side with him. After the defeat, and due to their poor decision, orcs are essentially treated as the lowest tier of a three-tiered social structure with Elves as the elite social class, and humans as (basically) the middle class. The story itself follows the characters Nick Jakoby, the first orc cop in the LA police force, and his partner Daryl Ward, a human police officer who is none to pleased to have Jakoby there. The plot is a somewhat by-the-numbers hero’s tale where a man (and, sorry for the sexism, it is typically a man in these stories) is pulled from humble beginnings because of circumstances that are outside of his control, is given or finds some kind of magical object, suffers some manner of temptation or dark time only to rise above and vanquish the evil. If that sounds like the plot of a lot of movies, it’s only because it is. It makes for fairly enjoyable, albeit somewhat repetitive, storytelling, and Bright is no exception. I liked the movie, but other than the fantasy world in the modern times, there’s not a lot that’s unique about it. This is generally why the movie came out to mixed and/or poor reviews, but there’s a more serious problem with the Bright universe that needs a little critique: the problem is magic.

I have to take a step back here to define a term first. Verisimilitude is the ability to appear true or real, and for fiction writers, this is the ability for a story to appear real. Basically, it’s the capacity for a story to be plausible, even/especially if it isn’t possible. This is, of course, something that all fiction has to deal with at some level, but it is a very particular issue for speculative fiction like fantasy and science fiction where, in the former, you have magic, mythical creatures, and magical objects, and, in the latter, you have potentially unbridled science and technology. Because in fantasy and sci-fi these things are so far removed from actual, lived experience, they require something that makes them believable and, most importantly to make them believable, something that makes them limited. Otherwise, what you end up with is a storytelling device that can potentially be anything and do anything. This renders any problems the characters have null and void because, hey, when in doubt, magic out, right?

There are two examples I can bring up here when it comes to verisimilitude in fantasy: Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Both of these universes have magic in them, but there are particularly important limits that are built into the story to make them believable. First, the Potterverse. In that universe, magic is potentially unlimited except for one key aspect: it has to be learned. This puts an important limit on the characters in that their use of magic is only as good as their capability to learn it, and in fact, some of the trouble that the main characters get into is actually because they don’t necessarily know all the spells needed to be able to do anything. Further, the fact that we see them learning from books means that magic is also discovered and written down by scholars who are experimenting with various capabilities. This leads the reader or viewer to two conclusions: first, a particularly gifted student could potentially become very powerful, but there are still going to be limits in terms of what a person could reasonably come to understand. Second, there would need to be experiments done in order to create and teach new spells which makes the understanding of magic in the Harry Potter universe (dare I say it?) scientific or, at the very least, empirical, leading to the conclusion that magic is not really an unlimited power. Granted, this verisimilitude completely breaks down when it comes to the magical objects in the universe (time turners and horcruxes? Really?), but at least for the characters, the magical system in Harry Potter is generally believable and never really becomes so powerful that the problems the characters face are easily resolved with the flick of a wand.

Speaking of magical objects, this leads us to Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. In these stories, magic is a given as well, but it actually is not nearly as prevalent as it could be. Aragorn’s miraculous healing is, well, miraculous, but other than that, Tolkien’s universe doesn’t really have much magic. Instead, Tolkien put most of the magical stuff into objects. The rings of power, for example, don’t really get their powers spelled out clearly, but are generally seen to inspire, to persuade, and, in the case of the One Ring, to control. This is true for many of the objects in Middle Earth. The named weapons, for example, are more like symbols of inspiration than truly magical objects, and even though there are wizards in middle earth, they are basically given the not-very-magical power of wise counselling to the other characters. Even when Gandalf comes back to life, it isn’t so much a miracle as it is the fact that he hasn’t finished his job and so gets resurrected. Once again, this lack of the divine-intervention-kind-of-a-thing that magic can be in a story makes the reader more invested in the actions of the characters because it leaves the reader thinking that the characters are 1.) believable, and 2.) actually facing a problem they can’t magic their way out of.

Let’s circle back to Bright. Magic is a given, and like Tolkien, it is all in the objects: magic wands, one of which has been found by the police officers, Jakoby and Ward. Are there some limits on the use of magic? Yes, only brights can use the wands without being exploded. At this point, a good fantasy writer would want to leave the viewer with some sort of explanation. What does it take to be a bright? Is there something that distinguishes the bright from everyone else? Is there a way to know that you are a bright if, in fact, you are? The movie gives us nothing, which, of course leads to a predictable plot point: one of the two cops is going to be a bright. How will this person find that out? By using the wand in a moment of desperation, of course. The lack of explanation leads to an incredibly predictable plot, and, since Will Smith plays one of the cops, it’s an easy guess as to who the bright is going to be.

We already know who is going to wield the wand then, so what does the wand actually do? Well, it’s hard to say. It has a very unexplained set of powers that includes the following, according to the movie:

  • Giving you a million dollars
  • Giving you ten million dollars
  • Making you taller
  • Making you shorter
  • Making your dick bigger
  • Time travel, I guess?
  • Explosions!
  • Resurrecting characters (who really should have died)
  • And sealing up/releasing The Dark Lord.

Basically, the magic is too powerful here, and, without any limitations or constraints other than the fact that only a bright can use it, the wand can potentially do anything. In a story line, all this does is make the challenges the characters face seem like they shouldn’t really be problems at all. This much power renders enemies impotent and dilemmas easily solvable. In short, it makes for a pretty useless plot.

Where, then, does this leave us? Bright was a fun movie. The action was great, the shooting and fight scenes were amazing, and even the slo-mo, bullet-time had me cheering. As a mindless action movie, Bright was worth the watch. Right up there with Pacific Rim, as far as I’m concerned. As a serious take on fantasy, the complete lack of an attempt at verisimilitude left a lot to be desired, and that isn’t even to comment on the issue of race relations that, I suppose, it was trying to touch on. That is a review for a different armchair critic. Should you watch it? Yeah, go for it. There’s a part two in the works, so I’ll see that one as well. Hopefully the second part fixes some of the issues.

But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

-PWC

You don’t have a calling or why I should go fishing

Lake

There’s nothing quite like fishing. To go fishing is to get a nice breath of fresh air, to be outside in the sun, and to get time away from the city. It also allows you a time and a place to just sit for a while and think. Fishing is intentionally taking things slowly. Even fly fishing, although significantly more active than using bait, still involves a lot of patience and quite a lot of waiting. It’s a wonderful hobby, overall, and I tend to think that more people should get into it.

After having gone fishing quite a lot and caught quite a lot of fish, I know quite a lot about fishing. I’m even fairly good at it. I even have a few philosophical opinions about the differences between meat fishing and catch and release, and, on certain occasions, I have a fairly intense desire to go fishing. You could possibly say that I even feel called toward fishing. But of course, that’s absolute crap: I’m called to something else, right?

In all honesty, both ideas are incorrect. There’s a myth that many people believe in that goes something along the lines of “having a calling,” or “being called toward” some profession. Personally, I don’t buy it. The discussion quickly becomes overly deterministic when people are talking about callings: something like if you’ve added x, y, and z to your childhood the result will be that you’re meant to be a doctor. The other way having a calling is discussed is as a convenient shorthand for being passionate about something. Either way, there is one major flaw: people are always looking for a calling. One calling. Singular.

I would like to substitute the myth of the calling with two things: first, a range of possibilities that a person can engage in. Of course, there are some limits. I’m a little short to play professional rugby, for example, but within the range of things that I am capable of doing, there is quite a lot of possibility. For the vast majority of us, this is the case. Unless for some external reason we are being forced into one profession, most of us would be able to learn to do quite a lot of things and would be able to learn to do them well. Which is where my second substitution for the myth of the calling comes in: work. I would argue that, given the time, everyone could learn to do what they want, but the vast majority of people do not. The reason is simply that it’s work, and nobody likes work (there are people who claim to be workaholics, but they are liars and cannot be trusted). In the middle of all of this, of course, is passion. What a person is passionate about will lead them to be interested in working at it, and, of the range of possible things they could do, that passion will also lead to a particular path. That’s not a calling; that’s putting in the effort and being personally invested.

But perhaps that sounds an awful lot like a calling, so here’s where my real critique lies: the more people who are busy looking for their one purpose in life– their calling– the less interesting the world will be. What we lose there is people who are willing to bounce around a bit and try new things. Maybe there’s an accountant who has always wanted to be a singer, so what’s stopping that person from singing? If it’s that the accountant feels that accounting is a calling, then that is a poor choice, indeed. The idea of having one, singular calling is a strange limit that we put on human potential, and we would probably all be better off without it.

Let’s have one more anecdote to show my point: Franz Kafka. Whether you love or hate his writing, he is still remembered as a great author of the 20th century. His day job was writing insurance reports, and by all accounts, he was actually quite good at it. Think about that for just a second. Imagine what a loss it would be to the literary world if Kafka had decided that his calling was to write insurance reports instead of the surrealist novels he is known for. With that in mind, I would say that we’d be much better off forgetting the entire concept of having a calling along with all of its singular-profession determinism.

-PWC

“To light a candle is to cast a shadow”

AWizardOfEarthsea(1stEd)
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

A few days ago, Ursula K. Le Guin died, as all great writers must eventually, and I was quite saddened by the news. Although I’m decidedly a non-fiction writer, her books and her writing have had quite an influence on me. I read a whole lot of fantasy as a younger man, and despite having read a lot of books, somehow what I’ve read of her work has stuck with me the most. In particular, the Earthsea Cycle is a series of books that, at least mentally, I return to frequently.

Earthseas itself is a place that is particularly interesting due to its balances. Everything in that universe has an opposite, and the overall theme is not so much conflict and fighting as it is bringing opposites into balance. It’s good life advice even if it isn’t particularly easy to accomplish, and in a nation that seems to have gone haywire lately, perhaps balance in opposites is something that more of us should be trying to do.

For my part, I’ve decided to re-read the series this year, and I think you should, too. I had actually decided to do this before Le Guin passed away, but now, it seems even more like the right thing to do. I hope re-reading the series lights a very bright candle, and I hope the shadow it creates isn’t too large: everything in balance.

-PWC