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“I've Seen Things You People Wouldn't Believe"

Brightburn (May 2019)

Movie Review by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Tori and Kyle Brewer’s wish for parenthood appears to be granted by divine intervention: after failing to conceive naturally, a small alien craft crashes on their farm one night, bearing a human-looking infant. Tory and Kyle raise the child, Brandon, as their own, but after Brandon turns twelve they realize this is one gift horse whose mouth they should have probably looked at.

Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You

Man of Steel meets Chronicle, with a liberal sprinkling of The Bad Seed and The Omen, sounds like an interesting movie premise, but it doesn’t in and of itself constitute a story. The narrative Brightburn constructs with these ideas, while engrossing in certain isolated sequences in the same way that a Halloween flick is viscerally captivating in the moment, fails to engage emotionally or escape the narrow confines of its chosen superhero-horror hybrid formula. That’s a shame, because the performances by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman as Tori and Kyle, and particularly the young Jackson A. Dunn as Brandon, offer emotionally nuanced portrayals of conflicted characters dealing with constantly upended expectations. Additionally, David Yarovesky’s mostly sober direction, along with Michael Dallatorre’s captivatingly gloomy photography, provide a context of robust production values that gives these portrayals nice breathing room. And the screenplay itself is concise, if not crisp, with the running time coming in at just over an hour and a half. Alas, besides a few gasps at several instances of gore, the audience with whom I saw this movie on opening day shuffled out of the theater in desultory fashion. I imagine the reaction would be similar if you were gifted a sleek, shiny multi-purpose tool, only to find out that every one of its articulated extensions was just another blade--and dull at that. Yes, cutting is fine, “But what else can it do?” you’d be tempted to ask.

The main problem with Brightburn’s construction is that it attempts to repurpose probably our most famous contemporary pop mythos, that of Superman, into a fleeting experience of mood rather than a substantial one of values and ideas. Don’t get me wrong: I think Superman’s iconography is robust enough, and the superhero’s origin story sufficiently capacious, to accommodate any kind of re-imagining or response, including a horror-centric one--as long as care is taken to first select only the relevant slices of the Kryptonian pie. Simply inverting the entire framework at its most rudimentary level, and hoping for that flip to successfully fuel a slasher movie, shows both a paucity of imagination and an under-appreciation of the aesthetic differences between genres. Superman’s story, dressed up in the what-ifs of science fiction, represents a triumph of imaginative mythology because its focus is aspirational and transcendent; horror, which relies primarily on affect for its power, can’t be naturally derived by switching mythological good to evil. Moreover, Brightburn’s explicit congruences with and nods to the Superman story, particularly as captured in the original 1978 film, unnecessarily overburden its already frail foundations. The movie would have a better chance of flying if it lost the red cape.

Despite its seemingly audacious forays into shocking violence, Brightburn remains timidly tied to the mythos to which it ultimately acts as little more than a fangled footnote. In the archetypical retelling of the Superman story, we can overlook the implausibility of the alien baby’s initial adoption, and the ensuing subterfuge, because we are seduced by the yarn’s nobility and ultimate heroics. The vacuum created by removing these elements can’t simply be filled with titillating kills, and only serves to highlight creaky plot mechanics, particularly when contending with modern-day technologies and societal protocols.

As the film progresses, it becomes trapped in a facile calculus that equates evil with sexiness, badness with boldness. To be dramatically involving, wickedness needs to be married to either transformation or tragedy. Consider, for instance, the classic example of the prolonged downfall chronicled in Scarface; or, more recently, and admittedly a film which I thought misfired in significant ways, the inner struggles of Venom. Am I saying I think Brightburn is worse than Venom? Not quite; I’m arguing that Venom knows enough to attempt more, and fails, and that while Brightburn attempts little and succeeds, its slender success should be demerited on account of the fact that it exists in a post-Venom world, and its antihero-as-superhero rubric is therefore not even original by multiplex standards. Meta-commentary need not be self-indulgent, but to avoid that pitfall it has to actually say something.

Something We Found in the Woods – Spoilers Ahead

Part of Brightburn’s inability to take us on the emotional journey its first hour or so invests time in developing—parents forced to confront their worst fears, and so on—stems from Brandon's character development feeling stymied in two major ways. For one, he has a placid upbringing and appears to enjoy a loving and wholesome relationship with his parents, who are attempting to inculcate in him positive values. And yet when his powers first manifest, he doesn’t reveal them to his parents or anyone else. The film wants to have it both ways: the family must have a close, loving relationship, in order to mirror Clark Kent’s teen years with his adoptive parents and for the later dissolution of this family to have any kind of impact, and yet Brandon doesn’t trust them with essential discoveries about himself.

Brandon not telling his folks about his newfound abilities, incidentally, is merely one instance of a character withholding vital information at a key moment, or just generally reacting in an implausible way, for no discernible reason. Many examples come to mind, such as Tori not immediately telling her husband Kyle about Brandon’s discovery of the ship in the barn. Or later, Kyle failing to mention that Brandon absent-mindedly deformed a fork with his bare teeth. And so on.

Secondly, and more importantly, after Brandon’s “activation” by his ship, his feats are quickly made evident and he seems to have no difficulty in getting away with whatever he sets his sights on, pun intended. Granted, he makes a few tactical blunders—he still has the mind of a twelve-year-old—but, for all intents and purposes, he’s unstoppable. What obstacles must he overcome? What are Brandon’s fatal weaknesses? What, in short, are his psychological and physical varieties of kryptonite? Caitlyn letting Brandon fall during the trust exercise at school teases what could have been a moving story of alienation and bullying, but frustratingly ends up being an isolated retaliatory incident. We do eventually discover that the material that comprises his ship can hurt him, but it’s too little too late; the screenplay lacks an overall empathizing context for Brandon’s journey.

Questions regarding his arrival on Earth also remain unanswered. Did he crash on our world by happenstance, or was he deliberately sent by his species for conquering purposes? The film suggests in an early montage that baby Brandon would have likely perished if he hadn’t been cared for and raised by humans—how is that consistent with the targeted domination on which the ship seems hell-bent? Growing up, it’s difficult to believe that Brandon never underwent a single medical checkup, or a vaccination, or a dental review, etc., any of which would have raised red flags about his biology; consider Kyle’s offhand remark that Brandon has never bled in his whole life.

Once Brandon erupts into full evil mode, the film does manage a certain panache in its depiction of his relentless kills, and I appreciate the claustrophobic vibe of the closing act, which sees a demented Brandon Quicksilver’ing through the house in which he grew up, demolishing its structure as he goes. For both him and his mom, the walls are literally closing in. An unhinged adolescent psyche has rarely been depicted with this Dark Phoenix-esque level of pummeling force.

In the end, though, these antics fail to redeem a film whose own facile dismissal of redemption as a theme is codified in the havoc-filled closing credits and the glib choice of Billie Eilish’s “bad guy”, with its on-the-nose “I’m the bad guy” refrain, as the final track. Man of Steel told us that Superman’s “S” is a Kryptonian symbol for hope; Brandon’s signature “BB” figure, purportedly for Brandon Brewer, might as well double for best bypass, or, maybe, buyer beware—or, perhaps even, bargain basement.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro's reviews and essays have appeared in markets like the Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.

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