Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A gifted child arrives from outer space, crash-landing into a Kansas field, where he’s adopted by a pair of kind, salt-of-the-earth parents. As he gets older, he discovers that he has special powers. He is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive… you get the idea. As familiar as all that may sound, that’s the premise of director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn — a film that wonders what would happen if that star child didn’t end up using his powers for good, but rather for evil. He’s Superman as a bad seed.
There’s certainly some genre-tweaking fun to be had with that bizarro-world, up-is-down, black-is-white premise. And it makes a subversive sort of sense when you see James Gunn’s name pop up in the end credits as one of the film’s producers. But the movie is more or less all premise. The rest is just an occasionally suspenseful, occasionally gory sci-fi riff on any number of earthbound creepy-kid thrillers. The movie has exactly one cool effect — the pint-sized main character’s ability to whoosh and whip around like the Flash — and uses it over and over again until it loses whatever gee-whiz thrill it started off with.
Elizabeth Banks and David Denman star as a married couple who desperately want to have a child but are having trouble conceiving. Then one night, as they’re about to try again, the house shakes and a meteor crashes on their farm. Aboard is an infant, and the couple, in a bit of magical thinking, decide that this is an answer to their prayers. They adopt the child and name him Brandon. Ten years later, Brandon (played by Jackson A. Dunn) is about to turn 12, and his special gifts are starting to manifest themselves. His doting parents initially dismiss it as puberty. Meanwhile, a glowing, pulsating red something begins to beckon to him from the barn.
Gradually, Brandon begins to act spookier and spookier. He becomes violent, defiant, manipulative, and eventually homicidal, donning a red knit balaclava and shooting red beams of light from his eyes. What makes any of this work is the commitment of Banks and Denman, who (God bless them) seem to earnestly believe that they’re in a classier, better movie than they are. But Yarovesky seems more interested in ominous mood-building, portentous sound cues, and jack-in-the-box scares than in his actors. Some of it works, especially in the first half of the film before it goes off the sociopathic rails. But even at a svelte 91 minutes, the movie feels padded. It’s missing the metaphorical layers and more assured pacing of 2016’s similarly themed Midnight Special. An end credits sequence strongly implies the possibility of further Brightburn installments to come. To some, that may come as promising news. To others, I suspect it will feel like a threat. C+