Don't look now.
By Louis Balzani
Posted 8:12 pm on Jan 8, 2019
WATCH THIS IF:
- You really need to understand what all the hype and fuss is about.
NOTE: Spoilers for Bird Box follow. Read on at your own risk.
Phenomenons like Bird Box are tricky. When a movie’s popularity grows to such a degree, all kinds of people come out of the woodwork to talk about it. Some may defend the film and its shortcomings, no matter what. Others will insist on trashing the film at every turn, even if it has genuine merit. Still others will take pride in never having watched the thing. Perhaps a few will even watch it and find it merely okay, or subpar at best. This is typically an unpopular option for the internet, sure to enrage the defenders and the thrashers in equal measure, yet here I am about to offer up just that. It’s a thankless gig.
Bird Box’s concept is intriguing, for sure. Life across America is suddenly interrupted by supernatural forces that infect anyone who looks at them, driving these people to near-immediate suicide. These forces turn the country into an apocalyptic wasteland, slaying countless innocents and trapping survivors indoors. Expectant artist Malorie Hayes, played by Sandra Bullock, finds herself caught up in the madness as it unfolds, and she quickly falls in with a group of survivors in an unfamiliar home. Together, the group fights attackers, strangers, and each other as they work to survive in a new world where looking outside is guaranteed death.High-concept thrillers of this kind often succeed or fail based on the strength of the world they build. Unfortunately, the film offers tantalizing glimpses into the machinations of its apocalypse, but nothing more. The supernatural creatures aggressively impose their unseen presence early in the film, creating an ever-present danger always threatening to strike. Eventually, however, you realize that they will not only remain unseen, but also stop posing a threat, so all of that danger fades away. Some survivors possess the ability to endure the infection and continue living, but we never get a good explanation as to how that works. So much of it feels like wasted opportunity.
Speaking of, here’s perhaps the most direct example. Director Susanne Bier uses a first-person view through characters’ blindfolds liberally, which sounds like a fantastic idea in theory. Why not use the perspective of the characters in harrowing situations to heighten the tension? The film could stay on that shot for long periods of time, disorienting the viewer, making them flinch at everything that runs across their limited field of vision – only it doesn’t. The sooner you realize that these shots only intercut a character exploring outside, the less disappointed you’ll be.
If there’s any saving grace to what is otherwise an underwhelming drama-thriller, it’s Malorie’s character arc. Much of the film’s back half follows her slowly warming up to the two children she cares for, one that she birthed and one that she essentially adopted after her biological mother became infected. She spends most of the film as a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense survivor, concerned about little and emotionally detached from everyone. Her commitment to remaining detached extends to her naming her children Boy and Girl, which is either brilliant or just ridiculous. By the end, she has learned to not only accept but love her children as a key piece of herself, finally giving them names in the process – it’s admittedly touching. Bullock puts on an excellent performance throughout, tapping into many dimensions of the character: her grief from uncontrollably losing loved ones, her hard-edged will to survive, her maternal instincts flaring up despite her best intentions.In fact, most of the time spent away from Malorie and on the rest of the cast is where the film stumbles hardest. Infighting amongst the group and various newcomers make up the bulk of Bird Box‘s focus, and this melodrama never proves particularly interesting. Characters slowly reveal relevant backstories and perfunctory bonds are made, but aside from Malorie’s fellow survivor-turned-lover Tom, few of them matter enough to the narrative for this to make a difference. The supporting cast turns in serviceable performances as predictable horror-thriller death fodder – with one exception. For whatever reason, John Malkovich completely flatlines as grumpy, alcoholic homeowner Douglas. His character quickly dissolves into a snide, antagonistic presence, and he sucks the momentum out of every scene he’s in. His inevitable “redemption” scenes don’t manage to leave an impression, either. Very strange.
If you’re feeling particularly mean, there are further nitpicks you can make – I’ll limit myself to a handful. Malorie and the kids spend nearly two full days blindfolded on a river sailing to a possible sanctuary, but they only catastrophically bump into something once? Characters run around blindly on a constant basis, but they only start tripping and falling over regularly toward the end as the script demands. Even composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose chilling music further buoyed films like The Social Network and Gone Girl, do little to ramp up the tension and emotion in these higher-stakes moments.
Bird Box wants to be both a tense, dramatic thriller and a memorandum on the powerful bond between mother and child. Unfortunately, in juggling these two narratives, the film starves both of development and leaves many of its more intriguing ideas half-baked. It’s certainly not a bad film, and you can find far worse on Netflix without much effort, but a miracle of streaming entertainment this is not. It might be worth a curiosity watch if you’ve held out this long and need to know what the hype is about, but temper your expectations accordingly. Hell, maybe watch it through a thin blindfold for the authentic experience…just take it off before you go golfing or whatever.