What if a child from another world crash-landed on Earth, but instead of becoming a hero to mankind, he proved to be something far more sinister?
That’s essentially the version of the universe that we are introduced to in “Brightburn.” The film dangles the idea of a superhero origin story that ends up being the beginnings of something truly terrifying. It’s a really interesting and innovative concept.
Unfortunately, “Brightburn” is the cinematic equivalent of a pizza cutter. All edge and no point.
“Brightburn” stars Elizabeth Banks and David Denman as the well-meaning parents of Brandon Breyer (played by Jackson A. Dunn). The film is produced by James Gunn, written by Brian and Mark Gunn, and director David Yarovesky helms the ship.
Here’s the deal with “Brightburn:”
It felt more like an elevator pitch than a movie. Instead of telling an actual story, it just felt like a series of shots and moments that rolled across the screen like a brainstorming session. It was a concept showcase and nothing more.
Of course, I can’t take anything away from the creativity of that concept. Horror is a genre as old as the hills and the superhero genre has made its splash and then proceeded to drown us in sequels and franchises. Both are absolutely beloved by their rabid fanbases.
A superhero horror was bound to happen. So much so that it’s hard to believe that “Brightburn” will be remembered as one of the first attempts.
It’s an incredibly interesting idea that should lend itself to thrilling horror. So why doesn’t “Brightburn” work?
From the perspective of this critic, it’s because none of the crucial elements of the film were given the same care and consideration as that one great concept.
The performances in “Brightburn” just seem to fall a little short. I feel like none of the cast is really selling the situation. There’s a lack of urgency, at the performance level, that permeates the rest of the project. It’s a real shame because there’s some real talent here.
The narrative of “Brightburn” is paper thin when it has no good reason to be. I mean, come on — we’re talking about alien life, a coming-of-age story (albeit a super dark one), the sacrifice of a mother’s love and a host of other potential themes and angles that could not only make for a great story but a story with true depth.
Instead, the impression I get from “Brightburn” is that the film is not entirely sure of what it is trying to do. This problem is best embodied in Banks’s portrayal of Tori Breyer, adoptive mother to an evil superhero. The character flip flops between innocent mother who just can’t believe her child is capable of wrong, to resolute citizen bent on stopping her son at all costs, to… something in between where she knows her son is dangerous but hides it from the police?
Like I said, it’s confusing and not the best-crafted character. There’s a hell of a lot of “Brightburn” problems that I would chalk up to rushed writing.
I feel like a broken record, but I’ll go ahead and repeat it: The fatal flaw of “Brightburn” is that it’s just not pulling the weight of an actual movie. But, there are some things that the film does really well.
It’s impossible to look at “Brightburn” and not be distracted by reminders of Superman. It’s the crux of the thing. In the first act of the film (in a rare moment of really great writing), the issue is coyly addressed by a discussion of wasps and bees. They share many things in common, but one is a benefit to the Earth and the other is a dangerous aggressor.
Goddamn, that was a great bit… too bad that it also teased some elements that make you think there’s an in-depth lore of origin coming your way, only to leave you disappointed.
So even one of the best bits of writing in the movie is a reminder of wasted potential.
Superman isn’t the only reference game being played in “Brightburn.” We get a nice little dusting of horror favorites like “The Omen,” “The Exorcist” and even a touch of “The Prodigy,” from earlier this year.
One thing I can give to “Brightburn” and hand over gladly is that this movie does body horror SO WELL.
This is the area in which that brilliant concept is best conveyed and the crafting of the kills is straight masterful. They get more brutal and extreme as Brandon’s character becomes more aware and intentional with his evil powers. It’s a progression of gore that has you squirming in your seat from both fear and delight. (One particularly rough go, involving a gory removal of a jaw, got a very solid “Ooooooh” from my screening crowd. Fucking delightful.)
“Brightburn” is comprised of some really beautiful shots and, for what it lacks in depth, it’s a damn good-looking film.
My verdict? “Brightburn” is fine if expectations are managed. It is a great premise and that makes it a really fun film to watch. Could you skip it in the theaters? Probably, yeah.
Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began when she was shown “Rosemary’s Baby” way too early in life. Bylines include The Financial Diet and Film Inquiry. Caitlin is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics and the Women Film Critics Circle.