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Friday, May 24, 2019

Movie Review: Brightburn (2019)

The superhero genre has grown rather dull for me. Avengers: Endgame was so much movie that to a large degree, I realized that my excitement for Spider-Man: Far From Home had largely waned once I left the theater from Endgame. That isn't to say I don't have interest in superhero films anymore, but I don't find myself quite as hyped as I used to. This is due to how many of them by and large feel very alike; the characters are different, but the perils they face are more or less the same. Hero as a predicament, bad guy is there, hero fights bad guy, overcomes predicament, all is well.

Some superhero films have subverted that formula by throwing a few twists into the mix. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a political thriller, Logan was a heart-wrenching film, and Deadpool was comedic. However, they are an exception to the rule. At their hearts, they are still superhero films that follow a traditional formula.

Then there's Brightburn. Brightburn is different. Brightburn is a superhero-horror film. And it isn't a very happy one at that.

Utilizing an premise similar to that of Superman—with a baby arriving on Earth from space within a ship—Brightburn tells the story of Brandon, a 12 year-old child who, much like Clark Kent, learns that he's special. Without giving much away, Brandon learns that he's extraordinarily powerful and slowly begins to rebel against his parents after a bad run-in with a fellow classmate. As the film progresses, Brandon begins to change and we slowly begin to see what it would be like if someone like Superman did arrive on Earth. The end result is a film that's a combination of Superman and The Omen/Carrie.

While Brightburn markets itself as a superhero-horror film, it's more horror than superhero in nature. It uses many of the familiar tropes, camera angles, lighting techniques, and sound cues that one would expect if they were watching any horror film. Be it something like Annabelle, Ouija, Sinister, or The Exorcist. The film is, at its core, intending to elicit a jump out of you. I really liked this up until it became apparent that Brightburn is confused in the type of horror film it wants to be.

You see: Brightburn, for the most part, has a lot of shots where we'll see a character looking around, only to quickly turn as we see a shadow rush across the screen. This is, of course, Brandon; he's the villain of the film and we know that whenever there's a shadow that moves, Brandon is about to kill someone or stand near a character in a creepy manner. However, when we do get the outcome where he kills someone, it's in a manner that isn't like something one would see in any of those aforementioned films (unless you're watching Sinister II). This is where that confusion comes into play; Brightburn seems to be written not only as a paranormal/supernatural horror film, but a slasher film a la Friday the 13th.

Neither of those takes are necessarily bad. In fact, I welcome both with open arms. While slasher films aren't my thing, Brightburn uses Brandon's powers to grisly, but extremely thrilling effect. The film doesn't hold back on the gore and more than once, I found myself let out an audible "ooh..." As did someone else in front of me. But when you have the atmosphere of something that's generally a slow burner mixed in with the action of something that's visceral and fast-paced, the end result is this odd mishmash that ends up feeling like a Purge movie. When the action gets going, it really gets going. Then it slams on the breaks and I feel like I just got whiplash.

One final criticism I have with the film in regards to the pacing is that the first half of the film is a bit on the sluggish side. Most of Brandon's spooking happens in the second half, which makes the first half a bit on the "he's standing around menacingly" in nature. This also ties into how the film feels like it gets confused in its horror identity; most of it happens in the second half and when it does, it's very noticeable. Prior to that, it feels dedicated to being a paranormal/supernatural horror film.

Now with that said, Brightburn's story as a whole is pretty good. It's an interesting and unique take on a superhero's origin. It's not terribly original given that it clearly borrows heavily from Superman, right down to Brandon being raised on a farm, but that's a minor grievance as the film makes the main focus Brandon's descent into becoming a villain. Still, the originality of the premise alone more than makes up for the borrowing of the Man of Steel. I guess I shouldn't be surprised given that this film was written by Brian and Mark Gunn, who are brothers of James Gunn (who also produced this film).

As a side note: I wish the film did more of, it's showing him at school. It would've been fascinating to see a character like Brandon endure bullying. He would've made his inevitable snap later in the film all the more impactful (not that it wasn't already).

Moving on, the characters are... a mixed bag. They aren't bad: Brandon and his family are well fleshed out and have a strong dynamic. However, the supporting cast were definitely in need of more time to develop. This mostly comes down to the film's short running time: an hour and thirty-one minutes. While I understand that most horror films aren't as long as superhero films, this film should've embraced the time that those films give to develop their characters. Though, given that this film ends with a very blatant open door, I can only hope that we'll see the characters get more time to be fleshed out

Well, those that remain.

Maybe we'll get their flesh out Brandon's hair.

Acting wise, this is where the film shines a lot. Brandon is played by Jackson A. Dunn who does a great job at pulling off an innocent, yet malicious and at times downright demonic hero/villain. His ability to be a genuine child, yet a malevolent hellspawn is incredible and is the primary reason I'd love to see this film get a sequel. A close second in the way of my favorite performance is David Denman, who plays Brandon's father, Kyle. Aside from his vitriolic disdain for his son that develops towards the end of the film resulting in some pretty amusing lines, the paternal dynamic he has with his son is at times some of the most heartwarming. This is backed up by Elizabeth Banks, who plays Brandon's mother, Tori. Her slow realization that something is wrong with her son is quite heartbreaking.

It's just a shame the supporting cast is as shallow as it is given that a few of the characters play very heavily into Brandon's rage, which makes the film's climax a bit less impactful than it could be.

The final thing I'll make note of is the scares. This movie isn't terribly scary. At least, in my opinion. I did jump twice and I'll give the film credit that it got me good. The main reason for the film not being particularly scary is thanks to the film never having a lot of payoff in the way of it being a paranormal/supernatural horror film. Most of the scares come with its slasher angle. As such, the film is significantly more thrilling and brutal than it is scary.

So with that said: I must say that Brightburn is one heck of a thrilling slasher film. It makes spectacular use of Brandon's superpowers for some ridiculously graphic kills. If you're at all squeamish and can't handle gore, then I seriously suggest you not see this film. There's one death in particular that, as I said, got an audible reaction from me and someone else. I'd read about it before I saw the film and even that didn't quite prepare me for it.

I loved it.

Overall: Brightburn is a very welcome twist on the superhero genre. While it's far from perfect, having plenty of things that I'd love to tweak or change, I must say that I'd be more than glad to see where the writers take the story should they continue it. Yet, if they don't, the open door the film ends on isn't something that makes it feel incomplete. Brightburn is, at its heart, a film that can work both as a solo film or one that brings to the table a potential new slasher icon. Either one works and either one pleases me in this day in age. Now if only The New Mutants would be released.

Final Score: 3.5/5

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