BURN IN THE USA
Director: David Yarovesky
Screenplay: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn
Starring: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn
Review: RJ Bland
I think it's fair to say that the superhero/comic book genre is a bit saturated right now. Between television (or tablet) and the big screen, it feels as if there is something new being announced or released every other week. That fact may depress you to your very soul or be news to your ears but either way, the one consistent truth is it makes it harder for new features that operate within this wheel house to stand out. Yes, there are countless comic book characters that can be explored and origin stories to visit (or revisit) but essentially, if we're being honest, a good number of them are pretty much telling the same story over and over again. So how do you offer a different take on the subject? Well, according to James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) and his familial writing partners, you inject some horror into proceedings...
We begin in 2006, where married couple Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) Breyer, are about to get it on when they are rudely interrupted by a something crashlanding on their property. Tori and Kyle have been trying (unsuccessfully) to start a family for some time, so when they discover a little baby boy amongst the wreckage of the spacecraft that's just ruined their backyard, they obviously decide to adopt him. I mean, what could go wrong? It worked out ok for Superman's adopted parents right? Flash forward 12 years and they seem to be a happy little family. Mum and dad are still very much in love and although Brandon is bullied at school, he's a sweet and grounded kid who enjoys a good relationship with his folks. However, when the wreckage of the spaceship (locked away underground in a barn on the Breyer Farm) starts emiting an alien message, Brandon's behaviour changes. He starts talking back to his parents, he becomes short tempered and discovers that he has super strength and can fly. Oh yeah, and he starts killing people in god awful ways. Can anyone stop the little shit? It ain't gonna be easy...
'Brightburn' is essentially a mash up between Superman and The Omen, with a little bit of We Need to Talk About Kevin thrown in too. It's a chillingly simple premise that effectively tells a dark alternate Superman story. It's a little surprising that the horror and superhero movies have never really met before. Both are popular and profitable genres but the target market for the latter is 13 year old boys, which makes it a little less appealing for producers to invest in anything that rules that demographic out by its rating alone. And make no mistake, this is not suitable for kids. It's pretty savage in places, in fact. Jaws are smashed in, eyeballs and destroyed and faces burnt into ash. On the whole these set pieces are deftly done and whilst none if properly crosses into 'scary' territory, genre fans in particular will enjoy a few decent jolts, quite a lot of gore and some genuinely tense scenes that the film serves up. The decision not to include any real sense of humour or lightness into proceedings (bar a couple of moments of black comedy) is an interesting one. You sort of expect there to be a few gags and winks to the audience from the guy who brought us the super self-aware Guardians of the Galaxy, but Brightburn is a film that takes itself quite seriously. Some may find it all a bit too sobre but others will find it only adds to the sense of menace. We're in the latter camp by the way.
Elizabeth Banks is in good form as the protective but out-of-her depth-mother. Kids can be a nightmare, especially as they begin the teenage years – and this sense of loss when your kid begins to feel distant and starts acting out, is amplified ten fold here. Brandon isn't out drinking with his underage buddies or just having the odd mood swing though. He's maturing into a despotic psychopath and Banks' realisation that her motherly bond with her son may not be enough to curtail his bad habits is obvious for all to see. However, despite the efforts of the leads, they can't cover up the fact that all of the characters in Birghtburn are a bit on the light side. The audience could perhaps have invested a little more in the plight of the struggling parents if we saw things from their perspective a little more but Brightburn's focus on their child makes it a little more difficult to accomplish.
Jackson A. Dunn gives an unsettling turn as the dangerously unfeeling Brandon but again, the writing doesn't explore enough of his backstory or the context of his arrival on the planet to really get a proper grip of why he is doing what he is doing. Maybe we don't need to know. His transformation from good natured (and exceptionally bright) kid into some kind of devil child is rather drastic – but the existence and compulsive force of the alien wreckage almost makes this feel like a possession movie.
As Brightburn plays out and hits its story beats, you begin to realise that you know where it is headed. The interesting concept, efficient action and gnarly death scenes (the jaw thing still haunts us) may muffle the predictability of it all to some extent but there aren't too many twists and turns here for cinemagoers looking for something truly outside the box. The climax itself, however, isn't quite so straightforward and is a bit more satisfying. A sequel isn't necessary but we'd definitely be up for it if it happens.