Sunday, August 18, 2019

It Came From The Cineplex: Brightburn

I saw this movie in the theater a couple months ago, but never got around to reviewing it. Might as well remedy that, as it's just now hitting home video.

Brightburn was written by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, and directed by David Yarovesky.

Brian and Mark Gunn are cousins and working partners, who previously wrote Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Brian is the brother of James Gunn.

Yarovesky previously directed The Hive (?), as well as several shorts.

As the poster loudly proclaims, it was produced by James Gunn, of Guardians Of The Galaxy fame. I have to wonder how much input Gunn had on the film, as the script has his violent and subversive fingerprints all over it. 

Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so, as Brightburn was originally scheduled for release on in November 2018. After Disney's shameful and cowardly firing of James Gunn though (for the crime of telling some bad jokes), the film was pushed back to May 2019, after the controversy died down some. 

Brightburn poses the cinematic question, "What If Superman Turned Out To Be An Evil Sociopath Instead Of A Champion Of Good?" It's an idea that's been done to death in comic books, but I don't think it's popped up in film before.

Despite the familiarity, it's a concept that could have made for a compelling deconstruction of superhero movies in the hands of the right filmmakers. Unfortunately these lesser Gunns and Yarovesky are not that team.

It's an OK film, but its dark retelling of Superman's origin story feels wayyyyyy too familiar, and there are few if any surprises. It also feels rushed, as character motivations change at breakneck speed, as if the filmmakers couldn't wait to blow through all the "boring" drama and get to the gore.

Brightburn's also a pretty heavy-handed metaphor for puberty. You don't have to be a film scholar to recognize that the manifestations of Brandon's superpowers are just thinly disguised substitutes for his voice changing or growing his first pubic hair.

So far the film's grossed $32 million worldwide against its tiny $6 million budget, making it a modest box office success. Look for Brightburn 2: Even Brightier sometime in the next two years.


The Plot:
Tori and Kyle Breyer (played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) are a farm couple in rural Brightburn, Kansas (Houston, we have a title!), who're struggling to conceive a child of their own. One night their house begins shaking, as a small spaceship crashlands on their property. They rush to the glowing impact crater, where they discover what appears to be a baby boy in the ship. The Breyers decide to keep the boy, telling their families that they somehow adopted him. They hide the remains of the ship underneath their barn.

Cut to a montage of the boy, who they name Brandon, as he grows up. He's warm, loving, incredibly smart and a big help around the farm. In short, he's everything they could ever want in a son.

Annnnnnd then puberty sets in. One night Brandon tosses and turns in bed, as he hears strange whispering voices in his head. Afterwards his behavior changes for the worse, as he becomes moody and withdrawn. 

He also discovers he has super strength and invulnerability. He stares off into space while eating breakfast, absentmindedly chewing up his metal fork. Later he tries starting the lawnmower, pulling the start cord over and over. Finally he gives the cord a mighty yank, and accidentally hurls the mower across the yard. When he goes to retrieve it, he stares at the whirling blade as if hypnotized. He sticks his hand in the blade, which completely destroys them.

Sometime later Brandon sleepwalks into the barn, where the ship is glowing red under the floor. He grabs at the trapdoor, desperately trying to open it and get to the ship. Tori hears him and runs to the barn. Inside, she hears Brandon repeating the words he hears in his head. He wakes when she touches him, confused as to how he got there.

As his powers increase, Brandon becomes more disobedient. During his birthday party at a local restaurant, his Uncle Noah and Aunt Merilee give him a hunting rifle. Kyle says he's too young and takes it away. Brandon angrily demands it back, and Kyle cuts the party short, taking him home.

Kyle and Tori discuss what's wrong with Brandon. Kyle's worried about his alien nature, but Tori says he'll always be her "little boy" and claims he's just going through a phase. While cleaning Brandon's room, she finds a folder full of swimsuit and lingerie models. She doesn't think anything of it at first, until she sees his "porn stash" also contains detailed anatomy diagrams and photos of human organs.

Tori says they should go on a camping trip in the mountains, to give Kyle a chance to talk with Brandon about what he's going through. While hunting, Kyle has an awkward talk with him about girls, sex and masturbation. Brandon coldly and unemotionally says he's fine.

That night back in Brightburn, Brandon's school crush Caitlyn hears a noise outside her second story bedroom window. She sees Brandon floating outside and screams for her mother.

Later after the family returns home, Kyle hears their chickens squawking and making a fuss. Thinking a wolf's after them, he rushes to the barn, where he discovers Brandon staring calmly at them. The next day Kyle discovers the door's been ripped off the coop, and the chickens torn apart. Tori insists it was an animal, but Kyle's convinced Brandon did it.

At school, Brandon's gym class participates in a trust fall. When Brandon leans toward Caitlyn, she lets him fall, clearly terrified of him. The teacher orders her to help Brandon up, and when she reaches out for him he crushes her hand with his super strength. 

Caitlin's mother Erica hears about the incident and demands the sheriff lock up Brandon for assaulting her daughter. She's enraged when he's given just two days suspension and ordered to meet with a counselor.

The counselor turns out to be his Aunt Merilee. She tries to get Brandon to open up, but is unnerved by his emotionless responses. She says despite the fact that they're related, she'll have to report his lack of remorse to the police. Brandon coldly tells her, "Sometimes when bad things happen to people it's for a reason."

That night Tori wakes and sees the red glow coming from the barn again. Inside she sees the trapdoor's been opened, and Brandon's levitating over the spaceship, chanting in an alien language. Suddenly he stops and falls, cutting open his hand on a jagged edge of the ship. Brandon looks at his hand in wonder, as it's the first time in his life he's ever been cut or seen his own blood. Plot Point!

Tori then tells Brandon the truth— that he arrived in the ship and she and Kyle adopted him. Brandon's enraged that they've lied to him his entire life and leaves. He hears the alien voices in his head again, but this time he understands what they're saying— "Take The World."

Caitlyn wakes to find Brandon in her room, standing over her. Terrified, she tells him to leave, saying her mother's forbidden him from talking to her.

Cut to the diner where Erica works, as she closes up for the night. Brandon cuts the power, then uses his supersede to draw stylized "B-B" symbols on all the windows with his finger. He then appears in the diner, wearing a creepy homemade mask. Erica tries to get away from him, but he speeds across the diner and kills her.

Brandon shows up at Merilee's house, telling her not to report their counseling sessions to the police, as doing so "won't be good for anyone." She angrily tells him to leave and goes to bed. Noah comes home and is surprised to find a masked Brandon hiding in a closet. He calls him a weirdo and says he's driving him back to his parents' house. Brandon says that can't happen, and throws Noah across the room.

Terrified, Noah runs to his truck and peels out. Brandon appears in front of his truck and begins hovering. He then picks up the truck, lifts it into the air and drops it. Noah's seriously injured in the crash, as his jaw's torn off (!). Brandon stares at him through the truck window, then uses Noah's blood to draw the B-B symbol on the road (???).

Meanwhile, Tori & Kyle are panicking, wondering where Brandon is. He returns home shirtless, lying that bullies beat him and tore up his clothes. He runs up to his room before they can question him. Kyle searches Brandon's room while he's in the shower, and finds his blood-stained shirt.

Just then Merilee calls and tells them Noah's dead. They tell Brandon about his uncle, and are disturbed when he doesn't react. Kyle questions Brandon, asking where he really was. Brandon effortlessly throws him across the room. Kyle tells Tori he suspects Brandon had something to do with Noah's death, but she refuses to believe it— even when confronted with the bloody shirt. For plot convenience she suggests Kyle and Brandon go on a hunting trip to reforge their relationship.

Kyle takes Brandon hunting in the mountains. Kyle waits until Brandon's distracted, and then takes aim at his adopted son. He shoots him in the back of the head, but the bullet bounces harmlessly off him. Brandon then grabs Kyle and burns a hole through his head with his heat vision.

Meanwhile Sheriff Deever visits Tori, asking if Brandon's home. When she says he's on a hunting trip, Deever shows her photos of the recent crime scenes, which both contain the B-B symbol. He says the symbol could stand for "Brandon Breyer," and asks if she knows anything about it. Tori says she's never seen the symbol before and tells the sheriff to leave.

She then goes to Brandon's room and finds a notebook under his bed. She's horrified to see it's filled with hundreds of B-B symbols, as well as drawings of the murders he's committed and the phrase "Take The World." Tori tries to call Kyle, but Brandon answers the phone. He tells her Kyle's dead, and that he's already home. She looks up and sees a masked Brandon floating above the house.

A fully unhinged Brandon then begins toying with Tori as he destroys the house. She calls the Sheriff, who arrives a few seconds later. Brandon kills the Sheriff and his deputy with ease. Tori runs to the barn, where she remembers Brandon being injured by the alien metal of the ship (Told you that was a Plot Point!). She pulls off a jagged piece off the ship and hides it behind her back.

Brandon enters the barn and she calms him, telling him he'll always be her little boy and she loves him. They embrace, and Tori raises the makeshift knife, preparing to stab him in the back with it. Suddenly Brandon grabs her hand and forces her to drop the shard. His eyes glow red as he grabs Tori and flies several miles into the sky. He stares coldly at her as he drops her to her death. He then hears a noise and sees a commercial jet flying toward him.

Sometime later, authorities are sifting through the rubble of the crashed plane, which landed on Brandon's former home. He sits in the back of an ambulance, calmly eating a cookie as he surves the destruction.

Smash cut to a TV conspiracy theorist reporting on the incident in Brightburn, saying it's proof that super beings walk among us and are taking over the planet.

• Kudos to the filmmakers for going hard R here, and ending the movie on a bleak note.

• Oh dear... It's a Sony picture. The gold standard in movie studios, and one of my former employers.

Whenever I see this logo flash on the screen, it's all I can do to stop myself from gathering my belongings and exiting the cineplex. It's like a reflex action at this point.

To be fair, Sony's actually had a couple of decent offerings in the past year: Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse was very good, and Spider-Man: Far From Home was fine. As for its non Spider-Man offerings, I enjoyed Escape Room quite a bit (for what it was), as well as Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

But they also recently gave us cinematic gems like AlphaVenomThe Girl In The Spider's WebMiss BalaMen In Black: International and Holmes & Watson, so... it all evens out.

Brightburn is for all intents and purposes a retelling of Supeman's origin. So much so that I'm surprised Warner Bros.' lawyers aren't knocking on Sony's door right now. Here are just a few of the blatant similarities:

— John and Martha Kent live on a farm in Smallville, Kansas.

— Kyle and Tori Breyer live on a farm in Brightburn, Kansas.

— The Kents are a childless couple, and desperately want a baby of their own.

— The Breyers are a childless couple, and desperately want a baby of their own.

— The Kent's prayers are answered when a spaceship crashlands near their farm. Inside is a baby, which they raise as their own child.

— The Breyer's prayers are answered when a spaceship crashlands on their farm. Inside is a baby, which they raise as their own child.

— Clark Kent has an alliterative (in sound, if not in actual letters) comic book name.

— Brandon Breyer has an alliterative comic book name.

— The Kents keep Clark's spaceship hidden under their barn. He eventually finds it, and discovers the secret of his alien heritage.

— The Breyers keep Brandon's spaceship hidden under their barn. He eventually finds it, and discovers the secret of his alien heritage.

— When Clark becomes Superman, he adopts an "S" symbol based on his Kryptonian family crest.
— Brandon obsessively sketches out a symbol that presumably has a meaning on his planet, but also looks like a stylized version of his initials.

— Superman's powers include strength, speed, flight and heat vision.
— Brandon's powers include strength, speed, flight and heat vision.

The only real difference here is that Clark Kent has his superpowers from birth. Brandon Breyer's powers don't kick in until puberty.

• The movie barrels along at warp speed, leaving little or no time for any character development

This is particularly true of Brandon. He starts out as a loving child, but when he finds the spaceship in the barn, he instantly turns into a cold, emotionless monster. But why? Because a whispery alien voice told him to "take the world?" Yeah, we're gonna need more motivation than that.

There's also no real reason for the change. He's not seeking vengeance against the world for being wronged in any way. One minute he's normal, the next he's a superpowered, murderous asshole. It's as if the spaceship flipped a switch in his head from "good" to "evil."

To make things even worse, Brandon never experiences any kind of internal battle. At no point does he try to fight his alien urge to dominate and kill, so there's no internal conflict. And therein lies the main problem with the film. Conflict is the basis of all drama. Without it, we get a movie with no meaning or consequence.

It would have been far more interesting if after the switch was flipped, Brandon struggled to contain his evil, but was ultimately overwhelmed by it. As is, with no internal conflict there's no reason to root for him, or care about him at all. And if the audience doesn't care about the main character, the movie's doomed from the start.

• Credit where it's due: The film opens in the bedroom of the Breyer home. The camera slowly pans across a shelf, and we see it's lined with a dozen or so books on fertility.

In one simple shot we learn everything we need to know about Tori & Kyle— they're a childless couple who'd do anything to have a baby, even if that means adopting one who fell from space. Well done, filmmakers!

I have a feeling James Gunn had a hand in this opening, as he excels in these types of brilliant establishing scenes. Check out the opening of Guardians Of The Galaxy for another example.

• Unfortunately the filmmakers squander all that built-up goodwill in the very next scene, as they apparently don't understand what a toddler looks like. 

After the spaceship crashes in the woods, we're treated to a montage of blurry home videos showing Brandon growing up. In the final shot he digs next to a toy tractor, and looks to be about four years old— maybe even five.

We then see a caption that reads, "10 Years Later." Brandon is now twelve years old, which is actually stated in dialogue. If the bulk of the movie really takes place ten years after that video shot, he should be fifteen! Math is hard!

• As I watched the movie, it struck me that Jackson A. Dunn, aka Brandon, looks a LOT like a young Tobin Bell. If the producers of the Saw franchise ever want to make a prequel about a young John Kramer, Jackson A. Dunn's their boy.

• When Brandon sleepwalks to the barn, he gets out of bed and drags a red blanket behind him. This could be seen as a nod to Superman's cape.

• There's a fair amount of setup and payoff in Brightburn, which, amazingly, is something you don't see a lot in films these days.

 When Brandon's in class, his teacher asks him about the difference between bees and wasps. Brandon goes above and beyond, telling her far more than necessary about the two species:

"Well, bees are pollinators and wasps are predators. And wasps are more aggressive, more dangerous, one species the Polistes Sulcifer is what's called a brood parasite, they've lost the ability to make nests, so they use brute force to make other wasp species raise their young and they make them feed their babies things like beetle larvae and maggots."

For anyone paying attention, Brandon just described the basic plot of the movie! He's a an alien brood parasite, who's infiltrating the Earth and turning it into a colony for his race.

 Later in the film, Tori sees Brandon fall into the pit in the barn and accidentally cut his hand on the remains of his spaceship. Because he and the ship came from the same planet, it's the only thing on Earth that can harm him.

In the third act, Tori remembers this and pulls off a chunk of the ship, intending to stab Brandon in the back with it. It's a good idea, but unfortunately he's too quick for her.

• Whenever Brandon does something evil and/or horrific, he wears a creepy maroon mask. I'm puzzled by this mask. I get that it's supposed to dehumanize him and make him look like an insect— after all, wasp nests & colonies are part of the subtext of the movie. 

But where'd it come from? It looks like he made it himself, but from what? It kind of looks like a large ski mask, but it has laces in the front for no apparent reason.

• More not-so-subtle symbolism as the movie progresses and Brandon becomes increasingly evil, he wears more and more red.

• After Brandon nearly destroys the  lawnmower with his superstrength, he stares tranfixed as the spinning blade. He impulsively sticks his hand in the mower, completely destroying the blade.

The minute I saw this scene, I thought, "Welp, it won't be long before some Jittery Soccer Mom complains about it, saying it'll inspire non-superpowered kids to dismember themselves with their own mowers." Amazingly I haven't heard a single comment about the scene. Color me shocked and stunned!

• Elizabeth Banks and David Denman both appeared in 2017's abysmal Power Rangers reboot.

Elizabeth Banks and Michael Rooker starred together (as husband and wife!) in James Gunn's Slither. Sadly they share no scenes together in Brightburn.

• Brandon's middle school scenes were filmed at Patrick Henry High School in Stockbridge, Georgia. This is the same location used for the Hawkins Middle & High Schools in Seasons 1 & 2 of Stranger Things.

• In a post credit scene, Michael Rooker appears as an Alex Jones-esque media blowhard, screaming about other super-powered "creatures," including an aquatic monster and a witch who binds men with ropes. If you zoom in on this scene, you'll see a red-clad figure in the lower left square.

That's the Crimson Avenger (played by Rainn Wilson), the main character of Super. The film was written and directed by James Gunn. This blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo means that Brightburn and Super both take place in the same universe!

Brightburn could have been a cool and clever deconstruction of the Superman mythos, but it suffers from subpar execution. The script's in such a hurry to get to the violence and gore that it can't be bothered to spend time on unimportant things like character development and motivation. As such, the characters are all ciphers, and the audience never cares about what happens to them one way or another. This is all the more puzzling, since James Gunn was heavily involved in the production and usually fills his films with tons of surprisingly poignant character development (see his Guardians films for prime examples). I give it a harsh and disappointing C+.

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