IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 90 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Tori and Kyle Breyer are a childless couple living in Brightburn, Kansas. When a spaceship crashes near their farm with a baby boy inside, they adopt him, naming him Brandon and hiding the spaceship in their barn cellar. Twelve years later, the ship transmits an alien message which Brandon doesn’t understand, though it leads him to discover he has superhuman strength and invulnerability. Nearing puberty, Brandon becomes disobedient and disrespectful – and worse – especially when he finally understands the ship’s message….
When it came out that Brightburn was essentially taking off from the idea “what if Superman came to earth as a child, but was BAD”, all I could think of was how this was hardly a new thing, and I don’t mean those two films when Supes turned villainous for a while. No, I’m referring of course to Man Of Steel where somebody masquerading as the son of Jor-El both killed a huge amount of people and let a whole load of others die. That ought to be enough about that really, but I couldn’t help but think of Zach Snyder and David S. Goyer whilst watching Brightburn, since it features some writing just as atrocious as their Superman films, though of course this is a different king of picture, much smaller scale [well, until right at the end where it royally screws things up even more] and belonging very much in the ‘evil child’ horror subgenre which seems to be undergoing a small resurgence right now. If you’re a horror fan you’ll want to know is it scary, creepy and gruesome, and it is all three of those things, which will probably be enough for some, and I myself commend it for being so bravely bleak and cruel. No visible studio interference here, that’s for sure. However, it also has an often terrible script with characters so stupid or reacting so bizarrely to things that it’s hard to get emotionally caught up with the proceedings. And some important material seems to be missing, as if the film has been edited down to the “highlights” and to consequently within an inch of its life, though to be fair that’s a despairingly common things these days.
The biggest problem connected with my last point comes along very early, and the film never really recovers from it. Our couple, Tori and Kyle, are trying to “get it on” when something shakes the house. Looking out one of the windows, they see a strange flare emitting from something in their backyard – and then the movie skips forward twelve years, with only a very short home video montage acting as connective tissue, to just before the boy’s birthday. This means that a hell of a lot of potentially interesting setup is missing. Wouldn’t it have been nice to see, for example, not just Tori and Kyle deciding to bring what was clearly an alien being into their house a la Ma and Pa Kent, but also to see how they react to this incredible event in their lives. Just a few scenes would have been enough to show this and to also give us some idea of the characters of these two people, but then I guess hardly anyone acts like a real person in this film afterwards so maybe it would have been out of place. I have no idea if the pathetic excuse for a screenplay by Brian and Mark Gunn [producer James’s brother and cousin respectively] has been gutted along the way, but there are definite hints of certain things that aren’t elaborated on, such as the idea that Tori sees this child as a gift from God. That particular point might have gone a little way to explaining Tori’s peculiar attitude to things later. And why do they decide to keep the spaceship on the premises, a totally bonkers thing to do if you ask me? Oh silly me, it’s so they can partly recreate another moment from Superman The Movie, that’s why!
So things certainly don’t get off to a good start, and they don’t carry on much better either for a while. Brandon [named because of Brandon Routh or not, who knows?] discovers he has special powers by randomly throwing a lawnmower, expecting us to believe that no other situation has arisen in his life so far to turn him onto his superhuman traits. The bit where he looks at his hands in astonishment is hilarious. Celebrating Brandon’s birthday at a diner, his uncle Noah and aunt Merilee give him a hunting rifle, which Kyle refuses to let Brandon have. Brandon causes a scene, making Kyle force Brandon out of the diner and leave with Tori. This sets up one of the oddest things in the film – these parents seem absurdly reluctant to tell the boy off, whatever he’s done – and very soon he does quite a lot. Tori finds photos of lingerie and swimsuit models, surgical diagrams, and graphic photos of human organs under Brandon’s bread, then Brandon, presumably using superhuman speed, travels to the house of his classmate Caitlyn, hiding in her room until she notices him. He kills some chickens, something which Tori attributes to a wolf, but Kyle insists Brandon was responsible. When Caitlyn doesn’t want to touch him. Brandon crushes her hand in retaliation and is suspended, but only Caitlyn’s mother seems to be especially bothered by this. This is crushing somebody else’s hand at school for God’s sake. Anyway, Brandon finally gets into that cellar he’s been trying to enter and cuts himself on the spaceship, the first time he’s ever been injured. Tori reveals the truth about his arrival on Earth, and Brandon finally understanding the ship’s message: “Take the world” – which means kill off a few people who bother you for most of this film’s length, with no sense of an inner turmoil in Brandon, and consequently hardly any of the usual commentary on the difficulties of puberty in which superpowers are a metaphor for the changes that the adolescent body undergoes.
Everyone in the town of Brightburn seems incredibly slow to pick up on things. Even after just the first murder, I would have thought that a kid who recently crushed someone’s hand would be a major suspect, but no. At one point I seriously wondered if the citizens of Brightburn were under some sort of alien influence. As for Tori, she’s continually in denial, still making desperate excuses for Brandon’s behavior even after the sheriff has some pretty damning evidence that her adopted son is a pre-teen serial killer. Soon after that, he utilises superhuman strength on her husband to cause him to slam against a wall, and she STILL sticks to the stubborn mindset that it’s really just her baby boy still going through a puberty phase. A more knowing script could possibly have got away with this by depicting Tori as being a bit unhinged, but here one is just left watching in disbelief. And then you have Kyle – okay, his attitude is more believable for most of the time – but how the hell does he possibly think his solution to dealing with Brandon is going to work, knowing what he knows and what he’s seen? Faced with this kind of writing, a very good David Denman and an excellent Elisabeth Banks can only do so much despite their valiant efforts. And what on earth is up with an atrocious closing credits sequence which seems to be intended to be funny, which references Gunn’s 2010 superhero black comedy Super, and hints at yet another f****** “cinematic universe. Can’t anybody just make a bloody stand-alone movie anymore?
However, as I mentioned earlier, it’s certainly not all bad. When Brightburn tries to be frightening, it often succeeds. While I think there are too many scenes where young Jackon A. Dunn as Brandon doesn’t seem to have been directed very well, he has a really creepy dead glare in his eyes, and has an unsettling knack for appearing suddenly. Moments when he’s seen behind some curtains and on the side of the screen in a bedroom almost have a Halloween [original, of course] feel to them and certainly show that director David Yarovesky has a knack for the genre, something that you wouldn’t have known from the infuriating mess that was The Hive, his previous feature length effort. The stalk scenes are well handled too, and there are some gruesome moments that you may not only remember for some time but which look like they’ve been done mostly practically. Apparently two kills have been shortened to get a UK ‘15’ rating [I wish this would stop right now], and some gore shots are so quick that you’d miss them if you turned away for a second, while you sometimes see more of the aftermath than the event. However, fans of this sort of thing will enjoy wincing at things like a glass shard being removed from an eyeball, or a jaw hanging off. There’s also a splendid nightmare involving the baby Brandon which may haunt me for quite a while the way the ending of Rosemary’s Baby haunted me for so long as a kid [for years I was convinced you actually saw the baby in that one]. Elsewhere though the budget tends to hamper things, something taken to amusing extremes at the end where a major event just isn’t shown – at all! I suppose one should be thankful that they didn’t attempt it with some crappy cheap CGI though.
It seems obvious that Brightburn’s creators had an idea with some great potential, but didn’t entirely know what do with it, and lazily thought that its horror scenes would be enough to compensate for a frankly terrible screenplay that needed some serious work on it before it ever hit the screen. Maybe it once was better – it all seems drastically condensed, as if they had a two hour movie but then had to somehow chop it down into 90 minutes, and thereby removed anything of any sense. Brightburn has its moments alright, but they aren’t quite enough to atone for its considerable idiocy.