When there is enough saturation in any given genre, there are attempts to experiment and spin new perspectives. Such is the case with Scream (1996) in the horror genre, or The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) with the musical. Given our current time of ubiquitous superhero movies, it’s surprising it has taken this long to introduce a hybrid super-hero/horror flick. Brightburn (2019) is the attempt from producer James Gunn at spinning some new life into today’s cinematic trend.
Brightburn is essentially an alternate version of the Superman tale. A childless couple (Elizabeth Banks, David Denman) find a baby onboard of a crashed space-ship in their backyard in Kansas. They raise the baby into 12-year-old Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn), but as Brandon begins to hit puberty, his transformation takes a wrong turn towards the dark side.
It was curious to see how the situation where a bullied but powerful child would react under the circumstances would unfold. Clearly not every powerful “loser” will grow up to be morally pure like Spider-Man or Superman (it is usually instead the origin story of many of those films’ villains). Brightburn could have been a psychological exploration on puberty and the confusion that many children feel with their changing bodies and minds. However, this aspect is just briefly scraped, instead having Brandon and his goals of evil come from a sense of destiny rather than pressures from his environment. This leads to a fairly bland arc in terms of Brandon’s character, so that there seems to be only an abrupt switch from sweet nerd to murderous alien, and no further explanation given.
This messy handling of Brandon’s character could be attributed to its performer Dunn, who seemed to maintain a monotone expression throughout the film, not allowing the audience to see much of what was changing inside of him. With child-actors it is always the director’s responsibility to shape his or her performance, which is why I’ll stave off of criticizing Dunn as much as director David Yarovesky, who was incapable of giving Brandon’s character any depth.
The key indications and emotional sensibilities in the story come, instead, from two strong performances from Banks and Denman as Brandon’s parents. Both actors (specifically Banks) have always shown great skill in supporting roles and yet have never gotten a true chance to break out. In Brightburn they get more time to play with their characters than you’re usually accustomed to seeing; and they provide the film with more significance and stakes than the script actually supplied.
The story itself plays out like a typical horror movie, with a reliance on jump-scares towards the beginning, and then evolving to clenching gore. It’s the surprise of these moments, with great make-up effects, that makes viewers cringe rather than the actual premise of the film. This is why the character of Brandon is not seen as scary, instead fearing how far the make-up department will take the next death.
In the end, Brightburn relies too much on the character of Brandon. The efforts from Dunn in the role and Yarovesky behind the camera aren’t enough to help the character ground viewers. The scares rely too much on gore and cheap jumps, with the lights of Banks and Denman pulling the weight of the story’s emotional aspects by themselves.