Review: Brightburn (2019)

Brightburn offers a promising take on the superhero genre, clearly riffing on Superman by offering the story of an alien child who lands on Earth and is raised on a quiet farm as if he were human. It’s classic “What If” fodder; where perhaps the most famous comic to change up Superman’s origin simply switches his landing to the Soviet Union, Brightburn instead presents an all-powerful being with ill intent.

This is a film that opens on a shot of a bookcase with at least four separate books on fertility, the camera panning to show the eventual adoptive parents getting ready for yet another attempt before being interrupted by the crash landing. The entire film has this amateur quality, over-explaining every detail as if we’re completely incapable. For example, Brandon Breyer, our evil alien child, comes up with a signature that he leaves at his crime scenes – we get scenes of the sheriff finding this marking at both, and then another where he goes back to his office to match up pictures of the two to show that, yes, he recognizes the connection.

The movie sold itself on James Gunn’s name, but it was written by his brother and a cousin and directed by David Yarovesky, a man with little experience but carrying a clear connection to Gunn considering his credits. It’s hard to view this as anything beyond classic Hollywood nepotism, a film elevated to a bigger budget and release than its screenplay deserves.

While promising a dark twist on the Superman mythos, Brightburn has little ambition beyond any run-of-the-mill ‘creepy child’ story. The whole tension of such a plot should be a family coping with the realization their beloved child is turning into a monster, but we simply gloss over their bonding and Brandon’s transformation is too sudden to have any real impact. The Gunns also take the most boring option for why Brandon becomes evil; it’s no internal discovery or inherent trait that bubbles up as he grows, but rather outside interference that essentially amounts to brainwashing. He simply isn’t the same character before and after, which voids any sense of emotional weight.

With any horror movie, I think it’s important to question what acts as the source of terror; Brightburn‘s narrative hook is a fresh domestic horror concept, suggesting a family with a dark secret that they must either learn to accept or perish. Brightburn all too quickly pits Brandon against his family; he is posited as an outsider, completely negating the familial connection. The Gunns don’t even suggest the parents might go along with his atrocities out of misguided love; they are immediately wary once they see clear signs of his lunacy.

Because of this, the source of horror instead stems from an untouchable, mindless killer hunting down innocent people; Brightburn is a slasher film. This could be fine; a superhero slasher would also be a unique concept, but instead of relying on tension, Brightburn simply tries to be as gory as possible. As the trailers were far too eager to show off, there’s a disgusting shot of a woman pulling a piece of glass from her eye. It’s not scary, it’s just gross and discomforting. This scene sets an atmosphere where, instead of being afraid for its characters, I’m instead annoyed with an expectation that any moment of horror is going to be unnecessarily crude.

Having any tension during these moments would require some sense of character, but I really can’t make any firm statement about who these people are. The entire family is purely defined by their perception of Brandon; what do his parents do besides worry about him? Do they have their own lives? The only reason Brandon goes after anyone is because they seem aware of his evil side, but he also does absolutely nothing to hide that aspect. A typical slasher keeps the villain at a distance, but Brandon is just as vapid while being a central focus.

Brightburn is a prime example of why writing matters so much more than a strong concept; there’s so much promise here, but the Gunns do nothing besides perhaps blocking a better writer from tackling a similar idea for the next several years. Don’t be fooled by the superhero coating, this carries all the weight of a Conjuring universe spin-off.

1.5 Stars Out of 5

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