Review by David Baldwin
I watch a lot of movies, so it seems to shock friends and co-workers any time I have not seen the popular movie of the moment as quickly as they have. I usually have the standard excuse of “It’s on the list” or “I’m waiting for Netflix”, but as must-see content continues to pile up on an almost hourly basis, I find myself consistently behind the curve. Quitting my full time job is not an option (especially when you’ve only recently become a full-time homeowner), so I’m constantly playing catch-up.
I say all of this, because the last few weeks have been dominated by discussions about Christmas, New Year’s, whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie (spoiler alert: It is), and Bird Box. The film premiered with little fanfare at AFI Fest in November (mostly because they cancelled their Red Carpet coverage out of respect for on-going wildfires terrorizing California at the time), but has since become one of the most watched original Netflix films, has inspired conspiracy theories about the veracity of the memes about the film being posted on Twitter, and now has inspired its own social media challenge related to activities being performed while blindfolded.
So yes, it makes sense that someone would be surprised I had not watched the film just yet. I made a point of fixing as soon as I possibly could.
As Bird Box opens, we are introduced to Malorie (Sandra Bullock). She is giving instructions to two children, Boy and Girl, about the arduous journey they are about to embark on. They must ride a boat down a long and dangerous river towards a safe haven — all while blindfolded. If they remove their blindfolds, they risk seeing the creatures who have caused much of the world’s population to instantly commit suicide. And slowly but surely, we learn how Malorie and the children landed in this precarious situation.
Bird Box is driven solely by the sheer force of its intriguing premise. While it does not necessarily crib from other films, the film does feel like an unintentional amalgamation of M. Night Shyamalan’s cinematic travesty The Happening, Frank Darabont’s daring and criminally underrated adaptation of The Mist, George Romero’s highly influential Dawn of the Dead and John Krasinki’s recent hit A Quiet Place. It’s an odd but mostly effective combination that leads to many gruesome deaths and plenty of enigmatic scares that probably would have been much better appreciated on a big screen with a large crowd. But hey, who am I to tell Netflix how to do their job?
I mention the enigmatic nature of Bird Box, not just because it is one of my favourite words, but because the film never seems to maintain any of the rules it sets out for itself. It continually contradicts any element it establishes and never really fixes any of the glaring plotholes or irregularities it often creates for itself. Sure, we have an idea of what is going to happen to some of the characters we are introduced during Malorie’s extensive flashback scenes (which are intercut with her river journey, evidently to make the film a little more fast paced), but the film barely gives us a reason for how these characters come together in the first place. Hell, it barely gives us a reason why any of this is happening or what these creatures even look like (although that may be explained as a budgetary issue as opposed to creative license).
But I would forgive much of these issues if the final twenty minutes did not feel like an absolute betrayal of everything that happened before it. I will not spoil the wackiness that ensues, but suffice to say, it does not really fit within the tone or even the style of the rest of the film — almost like it was from a different film or completely different and substantially lamer draft. I understand why things play out the way they do (the film toys with darkness but never truly embraces it the way it should), but surely there could have been a better way to bring all of its themes together. And perhaps another way to not introduce more new, unexplained elements into the film?
Plot inconsistencies aside, I will give Bird Box credit for mostly maintaining a creepy and unsettling atmosphere. From the very beginning, it is clear that no one is safe and that all bets are off once the supernatural(?) entities come out to play. Some truly horrifying and gnarly things happen, and I was genuinely surprised at some of the places this twisted picture goes. And of course, having Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score amping up at just the right time makes some moments shine.
While the supporting cast is stacked with character actors like Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich, Jackie Weaver, Get Out scene-stealer Lil Rel Howery, BD Wong, Tom Hollander and Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes, the film’s standout is easily Bullock. Her physical journey is no match for the emotional roller coaster she finds herself on at all times during Bird Box. She commits to every moment and every nuance deeply instilled within Malorie, and watching her slowly unpack the character is one of the few truly wondrous things about the film. This is the kind of raw and dark material that rarely shows up in Bullock’s wheelhouse, so her work here alone is more than enough reason to watch the film.
I liked Bird Box, but wish I could have loved it more. The pacing is enjoyable, the framing structure helps make the film a lot more exciting than it could have been, and the scares are only topped by a great performance from Bullock. With a bit more emphasis on story and adjustments to choice implausibilities, Bird Box could have flown high on its own merits, instead of feeling like a copy of at least four other horror flicks.