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Brightburn darkly riffs on Superman to hollow results

Brightburn darkly riffs on Superman to hollow results

The so-so sci-fi horror film, Brightburn, is pure hokum—a hackneyed, supernatural superhero film that riffs on the Superman legend, playing it for evil, not good. That idea could yield something interesting about a caped crusader committing crimes (rather than stopping them), but director David Yarovesky’s film, written by Brian and Mark Gunn, takes a different approach, relying on mild jump scares as well as blood and gore to engage its fanbase. Moreover, the special effects, while competent, never feel particularly special.

Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) live in the titular Kansas town and have been unable to conceive. Their prayers for a child are answered one night when a spaceship carrying a baby lands on their property. When Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) turns twelve he proves to be quite precocious for his age. He can talk at length in school about the predatory qualities of wasps (an obvious metaphor, for anyone who is looking), and soon realizes that he has superhuman strength when he flips the family lawnmower the distance of a football field. (In the film’s “don’t try this at home” scene, Brandon stops the mower’s blade with his bare hand—and remains unharmed. This is sure to raise parents’ ire and the amputee population if simulated in real life).

But what is really odd about Brandon is how he speaks in tongues, bends fork tines in his mouth, and has bright red glowing eyes (that shoot lasers). He can also teleport and hover above the ground. Oh, and he kills people in increasingly violent ways. Tori and Kyle, however, ascribe their adopted son’s strangeness to puberty. They deal with Brandon’s moodiness by telling him that he is “different” and “special,” and they protect him—especially when he breaks the hand of a classmate. Yet they also acknowledge that he is lying to them, oddly emotionless, and doesn’t bleed. What is going on here? 

Brightburn does not provide a satisfying answer. The bulk of the story may focus on Brandon’s unconventional behavior, but it never provides much of an explanation for why he acts out in such violent ways other than that he wants revenge against anyone who restricts him. Brandon says he wants “to take the world,” but why? Sure, he’s mad at the protective mother of a female classmate he is interested in—and he punishes her in an extremely gory sequence to get her out of his way. But even if no one is safe from Brandon’s wrath, viewers may be rooting for the villain rather than the victims. 

That may be Brightburn’s point or novelty, but the adult characters are so stupid, they kind of deserve to die. When one woman gets freaked out by her backyard motion detectors going off, she texts her husband she’s turning off her phone and going to bed. Really?! But what’s worse is that this entire sequence is played out so slowly, it generates exasperation rather than tension. 

At least Elizabeth Banks, who seems to be slumming here, screams at the appropriate moments and acts brave when she is not in fierce mamma-bear mode. David Denman also delivers a performance better than the material deserves. Kyle’s facts-of-life talk with Brandon is appropriately awkward—more so in that he’s holding a rifle at the time. Alas, Brightburn plays its serious moments earnestly, never leaning into to an absurdity that might wink at audiences. 

As Brandon, Jackson A. Dunn does embrace his character’s good and evil duality, and he looks like he is having fun being nasty but acting all innocent. Dunn’s poker-faced performance generate more thrills than anything else in the lukewarm Brightburn. 

Brightburn opens in Philly theaters today.

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