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Will Smith's star is fading. Can 'Bright' be the hit he needs?

By Stephanie Merry, The Washington Post
Jan. 3, 2018 at 7 p.m.

Will Smith emotes in a scene from "Bright."

Will Smith used to be a dependable hitmaker. "Bad Boys," "Independence Day," "Men in Black," "Hitch" — it was one monster success after another. Recent years have been more of a roller coaster for the A-lister, from his massive bomb "After Earth" in 2013 to the failed awards bid of "Concussion" a couple of years later. In 2016, Smith headlined "Suicide Squad," which more than made back its budget. But that win came with an asterisk: It was savaged by critics and still no box-office match for the superhero competition at Marvel.

For Smith, an unqualified knockout is long overdue. The two-time Oscar nominee still has the boyish charm — the big grin and goofy ears — plus, he knows how to land a solid one-liner. And he's trying to reclaim his place at the top, most recently with Netflix's big-budget fantasy thriller "Bright."

Only one question remains: Is "Bright" a hit?

The answer is complicated.

Measuring a film's success used to be relatively straightforward. There wasn't just one metric; some combination of variables determined what constituted a "hit" or a "miss." A movie could be popular with critics, thanks to positive reviews (helpfully aggregated by sites such as Rotten Tomatoes); it could be a hit with audiences, based on tracking information (such as CinemaScore's exit polls); it could have awards potential; or it could have mass commercial appeal, based on big box-office returns. Sometimes — as with "American Sniper," for example — it might have all four.

With more than 109 million subscribers, Netflix doesn't have to worry about box-office returns, which is why the company rarely releases its original movies in theaters, unless it's trying to qualify for Oscars glory. That's why the wartime epic "Mudbound" ended up on big screens the same weekend it began streaming. But a lack of theatrical releases also means no CinemaScore-type audience grades.

Meanwhile, Netflix doesn't release viewership data — even if it's probably keeping a close eye on the size of an audience for a movie that cost $90 million to make.

"In the case of Netflix, they have so much money anyway, it's not about box office for them. It's about the perception of them as a provider of new and innovative content, including big-budget theatrical style films," said ComScore's Paul Dergarabedian, who has been tracking box-office numbers for 25 years. "Their currency is their reputation."

Some Hollywood power players don't seem to mind. During the Vanity Fair Summit in Beverly Hills in October, director Ava DuVernay, who worked with Netflix on her Oscar-nominated documentary "The 13th," said she didn't miss the measurement of box-office returns.

"I get a vibe," she said. "I can feel the energy rolling in. It's not hard numbers, but it is a general idea of how things go. I don't need numbers to know."

So how's "Bright's" vibe? It depends on whom you ask.

We already know what critics think, and it hasn't been good. Some have called the movie, directed by "Suicide Squad" helmer David Ayer, a retread of "Alien Nation," thanks to its setting — an alternate version of Los Angeles — and its story, which revolves around a couple of police officers with wildly different backgrounds.

Smith plays Daryl Ward, a veteran cop who's unhappily paired with Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton, unrecognizable under layers of blue makeup), the first orc to make the force. In this fantastical world, well-dressed elves are the one-percenters who run things and the orcs are the brutish bottom of the pecking order; humans hover somewhere in between. Meanwhile, cackling flying pixies are apparently the equivalent to rodents, which is how Smith gets to deliver the cringeworthy line "Fairy lives don't matter today" while bludgeoning one to death in his front yard.

Some reviewers have called "Bright" the worst movie of the year, which seems a touch hyperbolic considering that 2017 also spewed forth "Transformers: The Last Night," "Flatliners" and "The Snowman," a thriller so awful that its own director acknowledged it was a total mess. But even the slightly kinder critics weren't impressed with "Bright." The average rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 3.9 out of 10.

That's enough to pay for a lot of scripts, not to mention plenty of high-level talent.

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