What if Superman, an alien who crash landed on a small farm in Kansas and was raised by the couple that lived there, turned out not to be a hero and a savior, but pure evil? What if, instead of using his incredible powers for good, he used them to cause pain and misery? What could you possibly do against such an unstoppable force? And what would you do if you were the parents that raised him?
Those questions get answered in Brightburn, the latest James Gunn-produced horror movie. This time around, writing duties fell to brother and cousin, Brian and Mark Gunn, with director David Yarovesky, a frequent Gunn collaborator, at the helm. With such a talented team behind it, it’s tough to pinpoint where exactly Brightburn went wrong. Despite some cool imagery and scary moments, the film and its characters are paper thin, making it lack any sort of interesting substance.
Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), live together on a remote farm in the small community of Brightburn, Kansas. The two have been trying for a baby for years with no luck, but their prayers are seemingly answered when an object from space crashes into the nearby woods. Inside of it is a baby boy, and the couple decide to raise him as their own son, naming him Brandon. Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn), is now twelve years old, and is starting to change from an innocent child into something far more sinister.
Brightburn’s biggest problem is Brandon himself. His turn to wickedness happens seemingly out of nowhere; there’s no buildup or real reasoning behind it. After two brief scenes of him behaving like a normal boy, he’s suddenly a psychotic, vengeful murderer. He sneaks into the room of a girl he likes, and when she denies his romantic advances, he crushes her hand and kills her mother, hurling the film into slasher territory. Brandon isn’t simply killing people, he’s sadistic. He tortures his victims both physically and psychologically, toying with them and reveling in their terror.
But there’s almost no rhyme or reason to Brandon’s madness, and the film is unclear about the why of it all. He’s called to the spaceship that brought him to Earth (which is now stored in the barn) in the middle of the night, and from then on begins his murder spree. If his interaction with the ship is what causes his change of demeanor, that’s vague and not very interesting. After sleepwalking towards the ship and talking in his sleep for several nights, Brandon seems to snap out of a trance each time. But he shows no remorse for his evil deeds, so if the ship is what’s making him do these bad things, why doesn’t he ever show that he doesn’t want to, or try to fight it?
Tori snoops under his mattress one day to find the usual teenage boy stash of magazines, but she also finds gruesome photos of bodily organs. Have those been there for awhile, or is this a new interest? We’re never told. The more interesting angle would obviously be to have Brandon’s descent into madness be more of a gradual thing, either by throwing in hints that he’s always been evil, or have his evilness be the product of the environment he was raised in. But his parents are loving and kind, and after an outburst at his dad during dinner one evening, the two remark on how he’s never acted that way before.
There’s just not enough there that explains Brandon’s sadistic personality and how he got there, so it makes him a wholly bland character. You can’t feel sympathy for him because he’s a crazed, torturous killer, and you don’t know why that is. Brandon is the basis of the film, and not doing him justice cripples the entire project.
There’s some subtext in there – Brandon could be interpreted as an amalgamation of young white men that commit mass shootings. He talks about being “superior” to everyone else, doesn’t respond well to romantic rejections, and feels like he must take the things that he’s “owed”. It’s a characterization that hits close to home, but there’s not enough of it there to be actual interesting social commentary. It could also just be a metaphor for the tumultuous nature of puberty (this explanation for his behavior is tossed around a lot in the film), but if so, it’s a tad bit dramatic, isn’t it?
Brightburn has such a neat concept and cool visuals, but the lackluster script misses the parts that the film needs most. The whole thing also feels so mean-spirited that it’s tough to find things to enjoy. Matt Jones as Brandon’s uncle Noah is the best part; he’s the only person who acts appropriately towards the horrific situations the characters are in. It’s the only time the movie feels like it’s having fun and cracking a smile – there’s also a brief Michael Rooker cameo where he plays an Alex Jones-type YouTube personality, but there’s not enough of that kind of stuff to lift the film above its doom and gloom. Brightburn is ultimately a good idea that goes nowhere, and by the end of it, you won’t care either way.
2.5 / 5 Stars
Brightburn is now playing in theaters everywhere.