David Yarovesky’s “Brightburn” straddles on the perceived ingenuity of its idea. The cumulative impact of a wieldy marketing campaign and James Gunn’s buzz-blaring involvement as producer compels some to even go as far as to marvel at its supposed novelty. Yet, there’s nothing new about a story that centers around a scorned wunderkind with superhuman abilities. I can name about a handful of examples, from pure trash (Mark L. Lester’s “Firestarter”) to absolute treasure (Brian DePalma’s “Carrie”)—but you get the point.
What makes the idea stick, though, is the movie’s spot-on placement in the cultural context. With dozens of superhero movies released in the last ten years alone, a film that upends the messianic legend of “Superman”, flipped on its head as sci-fi horror, is going to be relevant and indirectly en vogue. It’s an easy what if? to sell: What if “The Omen” had a certain Kryptonian as the spawn of Satan? What if Kal-El had the penchant of wreaking evil havoc on earth, like the nun Valak in “The Conjuring” movies? These what-ifs are ultimately realized by the end of the movie. And like the wide-eyed parents center to it, the movie might have fostered a monster.
The parents in question are Kyle and Tori Breyer, played respectively by David Denman and Elizabeth Banks. At the sight of an infant that crash-landed with an extraterrestrial pod, she—almost instantaneously—puts on a pair of maternal blinders on and claims the baby. He is totally weirded out at first, but also, in thinking about his inability to give his wife a child, he eventually goes like “ok, sure”. Of course, as is customary to horror films, it’s unbeknownst to these two that the baby, whom they would raise as their own, is certifiably evil.
In this sense, “Brightburn” is more akin to Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’ beloved cult Filipino classic “Tiyanak”, where a demonic infant preys on mothers’ urge to cradle before properly munching on their victim. This comparison holds up even closer when Brandon, now thirteen-years-old (see how clever they are with the age?), completely mangles the paws of a young girl whom he creepily stalked the night prior. Tori, like Julie in “Tiyanak”, musters an otherworldly heap of suspension of disbelief. The argument goes like: “There’s no way my alien son, who is not of this earth, and whose origin I know just about nothing of, could do such a horrible thing!” I’m paraphrasing, of course.
But you see, where “Tiyanak”—a shlocky 80’s horror made with ten times less than that spent on Yarovesky’s movie—touches on the absurdities of motherhood, and the horrors of having that taken away from a woman, “Brightburn” seems contented on resting on the cushion of its idea. That’s frustrating, seeing as how gamely Denman and Banks play foster parents to an evil super-kid, the unknowing Jonathan and Martha Kent to an evil, gut-slicing Clark Kent.
There’s a whole “Of Mice and Men” moment towards the end, with Kyle and Brandon out in the woods to go “hunting”. However, the screenplay, written by Brian and Mark Gunn, displaces this moment at the far-tail of the story—at which point, we know exactly how that scene unfolds (and how imperviously OP Brandon’s character is written to be), voiding any tenderness and tension it might otherwise have had.
Like its eponymous superhuman, “Brightburn” and its confused identity leads to a whole lot of destruction. It’s far less terrifying a nightmare than De Palma’s “Carrie” and far less nuanced a portrait of a disconnected teen than that on Josh Trank’s “Chronicle”. And while it’s clear that the film, frustratingly, seems unable to make up its mind on which side it tips over, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the difficulty of the film’s inherently excruciating balancing act. Despite this, the film doesn’t ever dip down the depths that it warrants banishment into “bad movie” oblivion. Au contraire, with a (much) better script, the movie might have actually stuck the landing.