One of the scariest, most anticipatory parts of a thriller (or horror) movie is what the evil itself looks like. Signs left the imagination running wild until M. Night Shyamalan made the extraterrestrial visitors visible late in the film. John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place didn’t wait quite as long to reveal the antagonists, but the anticipation and constant rustling provided enough terror in its own right. The latter is what Bird Box is most easily compared to, but in all honesty, it’s likely due to recency bias. Where A Quiet Place preyed on anticipation and a couple jump scares, Bird Box instead hones in on human emotion.
Director: Susanne Bier
Release Date: December 21st, 2018 (Netflix)
Bird Box follows two timelines, both surrounding Malorie (Sandra Bullock) in the present and five years prior. The two trails eventually meet in the end and provide a balance of background exposition while thankfully breaking up a 48-hour rowboat journey with her and two kids. A journey in which, given the circumstances, feels more ancillary rather than the main focus. Aside from one interaction with a solitary crazed man, the time spent floating downstream felt innocuous and generally uneventful as the party of three drift along to their eventual destination.
What they’re seeking refuge from is unclear, and never fully explained. Somewhere–five years ago–an epidemic of sorts broke out. It isn’t a viral outbreak and the best assumption is a supernatural entity (whose appearance was left on the cutting room floor), but whatever it is, only a moment of eye contact is needed for people to lose their mind and commit suicide. One person walks in front of a dump truck, another casually takes a seat in a car engulfed in flames, while another toss themselves out of a window. Whatever the cause, the infected were drawn to ignore their biggest instinct of self-preservation.
Bird Box does little in the way of scares, instead focusing on emotions. While fear easily leads the way, other elements exist in short spurts. But a movie such as this can’t rely too heavily on non-fear reactionary tropes to provide the intended result. A sister expresses love towards her hardened sister. A man expresses constant angst after losing his wife and openly shows disgust towards another. Some feel death is imminent while others express hope, what little there is of it.
But fear and hope are the tying ends of this story. The unknown is a straight line to fear, whether it’s the apocalypse, an alien invasion, or unfounded stereotypes. It always takes time, but as things come into focus, that fear often gives way to other emotions if allowed. In the case of Bird Box, the only clear revelation is less the less you see, the better. Lack of sight is where hope lives, and hope is where survival is possible.
Sandra Bullock unquestionably commands the film throughout. Peeks of her character’s past show both independent determination and a fear for her future, even before the world turned upside down. She reveals moments of vulnerability while cooped up in a house with a mixed bag of humans, but these moments are few and far between. These vulnerable moments are quickly forgotten as the story flips to present day, where she is an incredibly stern guardian of two small children. So stern she was, that there were a handful of times where her verbal tongue lashing didn’t seem like it would be her stopping point. Bullock successfully conveys both frustration and desperation, and it’s these moments that feel most real.
The flashback scenes heavily rely on the immediacy in regards to what is transpiring around the world. A group of strangers is suddenly holed up in a home together, each with their own ideas as to what they should do next, and it’s here that the film loses some of its edge. Aside from John Malkovich (who provides the Malkovichian performance one would expect), the supporting cast can’t quite match Bullock’s intensity and don’t ever feel fleshed out enough to worry about. One couple simply disappears after hooking up in the laundry room. A few others meet their fate and, as the film moves on, it’s all too easy to stop caring about anyone but Bullock and the two kids with her.
Bird Box may be lumped in with the “thriller” genre, and there’s reason for it. The suicide-inflicting phenomenon is forever left to the imagination, and uncertainty is compounded anytime one of the five senses is traded for survival. Where it differs is from traditional films of its ilk is in the twists of the plot. After innumerous attempts to reach human contact through a walkie-talkie, a voice on the other end finds its way through and promises an area safe from the evil lurking outside. Initially, there’s skepticism surrounding the truth behind the voice, but the journey and eventual end left little in the way of plot twists and turns that would otherwise shock those watching.
There’s a reason the film gained steam in such a short period of time. According to Netflix, it’s already their biggest original movie success. Per their numbers (that they provide and no one else can confirm), 45 million accounts viewed the film within its first seven days. It’s not an expensive film by Hollywood standards, with a budget of just under $20 million, but the star power behind Bullock (whether from familiar or newfound fandom) and its timely release in the holiday season are likely candidates for the high viewership. The flaws are there, sure, but the movie succeeds with Bullock’s convincing performance and the directorship of Susanne Bier. The latter’s camera angles and choices are simple, yet optimal in a way that doesn’t take away from the story itself. Bier provides a couple glimpses of life and light through the blindfold or a blanket without going overboard. It’s a subtle reminder that hits at the right time when the blindfold starts to feel a part of the person, and not a senses-handicapping survival technique.
Bird Box isn’t going to give you nightmares, but it’s also not going to leave hearts racing at its resolution. It’s a thriller for those who don’t like thrillers and an emotional film for those who don’t like emotional films. It’s a rare story that balances Bullock’s strong performance and is reason enough for a time investment. Though somewhat predictable and transparent by the end, the story remains heartfelt as a woman bent on independence for herself becomes depended upon by others.