The new Netflix original movie Bird Box is basically A Quiet Place with seeing instead of hearing. That makes it absolutely harrowing but also a little too familiar.
Based on the 2014 novel by Josh Malerman, Bird Box stars Sandra Bullock as Malorie, a woman who prefers to paint alone rather than hang out with friends or interact with family. She’s so aloof and in her own bubble that she doesn’t even hear that, halfway across the world, some kind of horrific event is occurring where people are seemingly killing themselves out of nowhere.
That event, of course, eventually makes it to Malorie in the United States. What has been occurring is that people see something horrifying, this event utterly changes them, and then they immediately kill themselves. As humanity races to find shelter from this threat as quickly as possible, Malorie ends up in a random house with a diverse group of people (including characters played by John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, and Rosa Salazar) who must bond in order to stay alive.
However, as directed by Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) and adapted by Eric Heisserer (Arrival), Bird Box doesn’t start at the beginning of the terror. The film opens five years after the apocalyptic events occur, as Malorie and two kids set off down a river to find what they think is salvation. However, obviously, they can’t look at anything. And so a woman and two small children get in a boat, blindfolded, desperately trying to float to hope in this terrifying, horrible world.
Bird Box consistently cuts between Malorie now, on the river, and Malorie then, at the start of this apocalyptic event. And each part of the movie has its own distinct flavor. The present is a nail-biting thrill ride, as you can’t believe what these characters are going through, up and down the river, encountering an increasingly difficult set of circumstances. The past is a sad mystery, as you see the terror increasingly exponentially, watch the world change and adapt, then realize none of the people in these scenes are still with Malorie in the future, which doesn’t bode well for anyone. Plus, what the hell is this killer power anyway?
No matter what time period Bird Box is in, Bier keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat. Every frame of Bird Box has a unique foreboding terror about it. It’s not scary per se, but it’s grueling in the best possible way. Moments in the film make you curl up in agony. Others make you cover your eyes in anticipation. And the film is constantly twisting its screws deeper into you until you realize what it’s truly all about. It’s about how one woman is forced to use the most horrific event imaginable to find out who she is and what can become possible, and give the audience a brand new viewpoint on the idea of motherhood.
The idea that the enemy in Bird Box can’t be seen, or you die, is both thrilling and problematic. On the one hand, it sets up such a clearly defined set of rules—since something as benign as raising a window shade can become a heart-pounding event—and throughout, Bier and her team play with this beautifully. One scene, in particular, makes a simple, three-block trip to the supermarket into a torturous quest. Even the most innocuous things, in this world, can become uncomfortably ominous and it’s fascinating to see how the characters adapt to their inability to see.
However, since the evil cannot be seen, the audience is largely forced to imagine it for themselves. And, well, that simply isn’t very satisfying. The evil supposedly shows each person their greatest fear but, in showing us almost nothing, it’s hard to fully imagine what could possibly be so bad. Bier uses dialogue and sound to do the best job imaginable of “revealing” the evil without actually showing it, but it never quite comes together. Though, to be fair, there probably isn’t a scenario that could satisfy the level of destruction this power has on this world. It’s kind of a lose-lose situation.
As you may expect, Bullock is dynamic and excellent as Malorie. The role offers her a huge range of emotions and scenarios to play with and the Oscar-winning actress nails it, towing a line somewhere between sympathetic, morose, upsetting, and lovable. Malorie is all these things at all times depending on the situation, creating a character that feels uniquely authentic to this world.
Her supporting cast, while given a lot less to do, is up to the task as well. Malkovich is his usual excellent self, playing a man whose intentions are always in doubt. Rhodes ends up as the second lead and has a magnetic, strong presence which blends well with Bullock’s on-edge personality. And though they don’t have much to do, it’s just reassuring to have actors like Sarah Paulson, Jacki Weaver, and Rosa Salazar in smaller roles. It gives the whole movie another level of quality.
And yet despite all of the good things in Bird Box, and trust us it’s mostly good, the film feels undercut by one thing: Its release date. Though it and John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place are separated by nine months, and that movie is far more straightforward and commercial, the idea of a horror film centered on one of our senses, unfortunately, feels a little too familiar. At every moment in Bird Box, I kept thinking of A Quiet Place, and the fact it’s still so fresh in my memory. And I kept thinking how Bird Box, which was written years before A Quiet Place, could have been more shocking and fresh if only it came out sooner.
Still, Bird Box is not A Quiet Place. It’s a more introspective, nuanced take on a similar idea, resulting in an evocative, intense film, with memorable scenes and excellent performances. It’s a fantastic balance of drama and genre from a team that does both well. It’s very much worth your time.
Bird Box premieres on Netflix December 21.
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