With the holidays now in the rear-view mirror, I finally had a chance to check out the new Netflix original movie, “The Bird Box” (2018), starring Sandra Bullock, directed by Susanne Bier from a screenplay by Eric Heisserer based on a 2014 novel by Josh Malerman (which I’ve not read, for full disclosure). The film has received record numbers of hits on Netflix’s streaming service, and has also inspired numerous real-life blindfolded challenges too moronic to get into here. For my part, I intend to discuss only the movie.
So now would be the time to put your blindfolds on if you want to avoid any…
The movie is told across three time periods, beginning with Sandra Bullock fleeing a rundown looking house with two unknown kids into a boat.
Cutting to 5 years earlier, we see carefree pregnant artist/homebody Malorie (Bullock, giving a bravura performance) at odds with her worrywart, uptight sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson), who’s heard troubling reports about mass insanity spreading across Eastern Europe and threatening to enter North America. Malorie doesn’t seem to give much of a damn, until the two head out to Malorie’s appointment with her obstetrician (Parminder Nagra). At the hospital, they see the first victims of this homicidal insanity virus, as a young woman repeatedly smashes her bleeding head against glass. From there things escalate rapidly, so Malorie and Jessica flee the hospital in Jessica’s SUV.
On the road, the scene has turned into total chaos; it looks like the beginning of every big-budget apocalyptic zombie epidemic since 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake. Jessica then ’sees’ a vision that lulls her into false safety (these unseen insanity-spreading beings try to bait their victims into looking upon them). Jessica ’sees’ the unseen source, is promptly driven mad and killed.
At this point, I was thinking the loss of Sarah Paulson was a waste of a talented actor.
Malorie, being slightly more resourceful than her late sister, finds refuge in a house lorded over by a genuine prick named Douglas (John Malkovich, an A-lister playing a typical horror movie antihero). The owner of the house is Greg (B.D. Wong, of “Jurassic Park”), who lost his husband, and has now turned his home into a makeshift refugee center. Greg and his late architect spouse were in the process of being sued by the ungrateful Doug when he sought refuge in Greg’s home.
Among the house’s other occupants are another pregnant woman named Olympia (Danielle McDonald), jittery store clerk/wannabe-novelist/comic relief Charlie (Lil Rey Howery, of “Get Out”), and eventual Malorie love-interest Tom (Trevante Rhodes, of the unforgettable “Moonlight”).
Things eventually go to hell in the temporary refuge after a near-disastrous blinded grocery run (using only voice-directed GPS to drive) as well as the taking in of a dangerous interloper named Gary (Tom Hollander), who wreaks havoc when it turns out he’s infected. Somehow (??) Gary is able to pass for normal, since his eyes don’t have the characteristic inky change that accompanied every other person afflicted in the film. This is a head-scratcher that is never satisfactorily explained in the film. While it certainly advances the story to its (already foreseen) conclusion, it doesn’t adhere to the internal logic of the movie itself.
Time-jumping between Greg’s fortified home, a seemingly ‘safe’ near-present with Tom, and five years later with a blindfolded Bullock taking two blindfolded children onto a boat, the movie’s editing is needlessly complicated. It slows down the forward momentum as well.
There really is no reason to jump between the three time periods, other than to undercut suspense with the ‘past’ material, since we know the eventual outcome; none of the other characters (not even the noble love interest Tom) survive, save for Bullock and the two children “Boy” (Julian Edwards) and “Girl” (Vivien Lyra Blair). “Boy” is Malorie’s actual son, while “Girl” she adopted in haste when her mother Olympia was stricken. Malorie has avoided naming the kids to prevent bonding with them too fully in this nightmarish world. She sacrifices everything for them, but at the expense of being maternal to them.
The ending of the film is a nice variation on ‘the meek inheriting the earth,’ but it also raises the question of what will happen down the road? Are Bullock and her kids really safe, or have they simply bought a little more time? What about the rest of the world?
What’s in the Box?
Obvious comparisons abound between this film and last year’s “A Quiet Place”, another in the new(ish) subgenre of ‘sensory deprivation horror.’ While Josh Malerman’s novel inarguably came before “Quiet Place”, I found “Bird Box” to be more derivative of an episode of the 1985 revival of “The Twilight Zone” called “Need To Know”, starring William Peterson (“Manhunter”) and Frances McDormand (“Fargo”). “Need to Know” saw an orally-transmitted ‘secret’ brought back from Tibet that was causing a plague of insanity in a small rural town. The man who first contracted the ‘secret’ wants to share it…on the radio (!).
The traits of the insanity (murderous rage, babbling nonsense, etc) are quite similar to the afflicted in “Bird Box.”
While the “Bird Box” shares a premise as its Twilight Zone predecessor, the exact method of insanity transmission differs. “Need to Know” saw the insanity transmitted verbally, while “Bird Box”’s insanity is transmitted visually by mysterious beings whose presence is never at all explained or elaborated upon. “A Quiet Place” managed to successfully flesh out its creatures’ presence a bit without losing their fright potential. The unseen beings responsible for “Bird Box”’s plague could be aliens, supernatural beings, or perhaps God’s wrath or who knows what. They don’t really matter, and that was an issue for me.
“Bird Box” is a horror movie that relies on rules, yet it never fully allows us to understand them. Will the insanity-plague-beings just stop attacking now that Malorie and the kids are safe? Why aren’t (the titular) birds afflicted? Are cats, dogs and other mammals vulnerable? Why didn’t Gary’s eyes change like all of the others? How did he ‘pass’ for normal when all the rest of the afflicted couldn’t? Despite the money thrown at it, the script feels naggingly incomplete; and the time-jumping soon becomes a tired, artsy trick that only works at subverting suspense in the present.
One thing that “A Quiet Place” did that “Bird Box” doesn’t (aside from delivering a leaner, tighter, scarier movie) was to give its audience an understanding of the menace at least equal to that of the characters in the film. It played fair with us. “Bird Box” kinda doesn’t.
While I commend the film’s A-list cast, atmospheric direction by Bier and some nicely written character moments, it all feels a bit overly polished… it could use a bit more scrappiness and innovation. While Sandra Bullock is a terrific actress, I find it hard to lose myself completely in the movie’s story with such a brand name lead. This is where another director might’ve wisely opted for a lesser known lead to give the film a grittier reality (see: the late George Romero’s quasi-documentary style in “Night of the Living Dead”).
While there is sufficient difference to “Bird Box” to avoid being mislabeled as a “Quiet Place” knockoff (not to mention “Bird”’s 2014 source), its much closer relation to the 34 year old Twilight Zone “Need To Know” installment is almost enough to warrant a copyright flag or two.
Boxing it up.
Ultimately, “The Bird Box” is a well-made, decent time killer that dishes out a lot more talent onscreen than we typically see (or need) in this kind of movie. I can almost imagine a far scrappier version of this same film made by a young George Romero, or starring a lead who wasn’t so instantly identifiable as a big ticket Hollywood brand name. “Bird Box” is not exactly a failure, though I find myself wishing it were a bit more innovative, and maybe even a bit more subversive.