“Brightburn ” is a one idea movie. What if a baby from another planet crash lands on earth and is adopted and raised by a nice childless couple living on a farm? This kid doesn’t get hurt, never bleeds and, right around puberty starts to discover that he has superhuman strength too. At this point you’re probably thinking that you’ve heard this one before, right? Sure, everyone knows about Superman. But “Brightburn” twists that hero origin story and wonders what would happen if this alien child was not a good person. This is a kind of bad seed with superhero powers and it doesn’t bode well for all those around him.
It’s an interesting premise, certainly, but the movie around it is wholly unexceptional and rushes through key set up that might make the audience actually care for the characters in order to get to the sadistic gore.
The film introduces Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) in their bedroom, surrounded by fertility books and talking about conceiving when a fiery object crash-lands in their field. The filmmakers must assume everyone coming in knows the basic premise because it does nothing to help explain, cutting immediately to grainy home videos showing a little boy growing up surrounded by love. By this point you feel about as attached to the Breyer family as you might the family in a cereal commercial.
When the montage ends, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is about to turn 12. He’s a smart kid, far beyond those in his class, and he knows it. Although an outsider with his peers, the positive reinforcement he receives from his teacher, his mom and a pretty girl in his class go to his head and he starts believing he’s superior to everyone. So you can only imagine what happens when a strength component and some demonic voices are added to the mix — a supervillain is born, and he is not messing around.
This kid goes from a little quirky to supremely evil and merciless in no time at all. But this is a frustrating evolution to watch, especially considering all the denial that’s happening around him. When the adults are witness to some of the disturbing behavior, they chalk it up to puberty. And Tori gets the most thankless job of all as the mother whose unconditional love and support for her son quickly becomes a full on character flaw, since the film has never really earned the audience’s empathy.
“Brightburn” was conceived by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, the brother and cousin of “Guardians of the Galaxy” maestro James Gunn who hopped aboard to produce with David Yarovesky, another Gunn friend, at the helm. Much is being made of James Gunn’s association, naturally, because of the goodwill he’s rightfully earned from the endlessly charming “Guardians” franchise. But none of that charm exists here. This is a return to the gritty, sci-fi horror he came of age with.
But there’s not much to grab on to, as the situation in Brightburn, which is the name of the town, devolves from bad to worse to entirely hopeless. And the excessive gore and carnage is deranged. The faint at heart might want to go in with an empty stomach, or a blindfold and some ear plugs for when things get really gnarly.
Perhaps I’m expecting too much from a high-concept summer horror, but I couldn’t help but think of how well a film like “Hereditary” (which was also very bleak) did in making you care about the family at the center of it. It’s too bad, too, because “Brightburn” was a good idea. Unfortunately the creativity stopped there.
“Brightburn,” a Sony Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “horror violence/bloody images, and language.” Running time: 90 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.