It’s been a pretty neat year for Netflix as the streaming service has made a great case to be taken seriously as a true force in the world of cinema. With amazing offerings like “The Balled of Buster Scruggs” and “Roma” Netflix has caught my attention in 2018 and earned some respect from me as a reviewer who usually steers away from examining films on the service. So, when they released a new horror movie this month I decided to give it a chance and thus I got to experience “Bird Box”. This film has quickly become a popular offering from Netflix, even spawning memes, and has divided viewers and critics as to whether or not it’s a true quality experience. It has a big name front and center, it has a unique premise and it’s based on a popular novel. What could go wrong? We’ll I’m here to break it down and find out. This is my review of “Bird Box”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Bird Box” stars Sandra Bullock as Malorie, a pregnant artist who expresses fears about being unable to connect to her unborn child. After a routine checkup chaos begins to spread as people start to commit suicide seemingly at random. Malorie takes shelter in a house with fellow survivors Tom (Trevante Rhodes), Charlie (Lil Rel Howery), Douglas (John Malkovich) and others. The survivors deduce that some kind of mysterious force or entity has taken hold of the Earth and those that see it are forced to endure their worst fears, thus leading them to commit suicide. Over the course of the film the story shifts to the movie’s present day, five years after the outbreak, where Malorie is attempting to reach a safe haven with two children, who she has dubbed Boy and Girl, remaining blindfolded during the journey. As the film switches between time periods we learn how Malorie got to her present situation and how she tries to survive without the benefit of vision to help her.
First of all, “Bird Box” should feel a little familiar. To get the elephant in the room out of the way quickly it bears resemblance to M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” from 2008. In fact the book’s author Josh Malerman has noted that he was worried his story would be ignored because of it’s similarities to the film after he had completed the first draft prior to “The Happening’s” release. I actually considered doing a Versus battle between the two but instead I’ll just say it here in my review, “Bird Box” is not only superior but in many ways captures everything great about this concept that Shyamalan was probably going for in his film. In “Bird Box” we never do get to see the unknown assailants causing people to commit suicide nor are we given enough to understand them fully other than theories from the characters. The concept of “Bird Box” not only makes for a superior mystery compared to “The Happening” but the way it’s executed, the tension, the danger, and the extreme nature of the suicides all feels much more frightening and real. So yeah, a lot of people will criticize this movie for ripping off “The Happening”, but it’s pretty hard to hate a film that takes a premise previously explored and does it BETTER than the first movie without being a straight up remake and “Bird Box” adds plenty of new elements to make the concept its own.
But there’s more going for this film than just its comparison to one of the worst movies of the last ten years. There are several performances in this movie that are top notch and help make “Bird Box” a chilling modern horror offering. We get a familiar premise where numerous survivors find themselves trapped together trying t survive and while not all of these people get the proper development, the ones that do make up a diverse cast that have their own personalities and ways of dealing with the apocalypse. Sandra Bullock is definitely the best thing about this movie as she plays the lead role in both segments of the film with great conviction to her character’s psyche and personality including her perpetual fear of attachment. John Malkovich, a traditionally hit or miss actor, is decent in this film as an unlikable protagonist himself while Trevante Rhodes, BD Wong, Sarah Paulson and Lil Rel Howery also get time to shine despite their limited screen time. Danielle Macdonald, who also stars in another recent Netflix release called “Dumplin’”, also shines in this feature as probably the most useless survivor of the bunch, but one I think a lot of people can see themselves in as she probably reacts with the same insecurities most people would suffer from in her situation. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a fun band of misfits trying to survive one of these horror movies but this group was fun to watch and I felt genuinely invested in their fates as they inevitably got picked off one by one.
The coolest part of “Bird Box” for me though it what we don’t see, and I’m not just talking about the entities. I’m talking about the underlying symbolism and the layered mystery of it all. One of the best aspects of Bullock’s performance is how she can capture a woman who has an issue with attachment, yet over the course of the movie she becomes attached to people and, eventually, children. In a world where an entity if forcing people to commit suicide by experiencing their worst fear Bullock’s Malorie actually finds the will to live and survive thanks to her worst fear, a detail I thought helped make her character more relatable and human. I read one review that compared the entity to social media and I can see how that would be an easy comparison to make too, but with that said the fact that we never see what’s behind these incidents only makes it that much more intriguing for the viewer. The entities can’t enter buildings, they try to woo people with voices of lost loved ones, they can march through a forest and alter their environment without taking physical form and birds seem to be the only animals that can detect them (is that a Twitter reference…hmmm). It’s really neat that the answers aren’t spoon fed to us and we have to interpret these entities for ourselves. We’re as ignorant to the truth as the characters and that makes the experience of watching the movie all the more enjoyable.
Of course the most talked about element is the requirement for the characters to be blindfolded while outside to avoid the entities and man does it make this movie tense. Actually the concept of lost senses seems to be a growing trend in horror movies. Just this year “A Quiet Place” forced characters to remain silent and not say a word and if you look to the past another Netflix film “Hush” focused on a deaf woman targeted by a killer while “Don’t Breath” saw people threatened by a blind man when they invade his home. Now “Bird Box” focuses on the dangers of sight. I’m loving this trend and it’s making for some very creative stories in the genre. While “Bird Box” may not feel as original as its three aforementioned predecessors it does successfully provide the same kind of thrilling and tension filled moments these other films also successfully embraced. The finale is certainly the highlight of the movie that brings everything the characters learned to a head but even before that the idea of one of our most appreciated senses, sight, being more dangerous than helpful is a scary concept in and of itself that works perfectly in the film’s premise.
“Bird Box” is a fun apocalyptic horror thriller, but it’s not without its issues and one of the biggest is the lack of development for ALL of the characters on screen. Several characters feel like they’re going to be interesting parts of the story but that never really pans out. In fact there are two characters that get decent screen time who just up and disappear out of nowhere seemingly for no reason other than to create an added conflict for the rest of the crew. At least one other character simply seems to be there for no real apparent reason at all and I forgot all about them until they died…that’s not a spoiler because I can’t even tell you who that character was they were so insignificant. While a lot of characters were easy to invest in, the lack of depth given to several other members of the cast kind of put the scale off balance so to speak. Where one death broke my heart another had me saying “oh well, sorry to lose…that’s person whoever they were”. With a survival horror one of the most important things is to make sure viewers can invest in everyone because even one disposable person can change how much the viewer invests in the story as a whole. While not every movie is impacted by this problem, “Bird Box” is and the fact that we see that Malorie is without the entire crew later in the film so we know somehow they are separated means the filmmakers have to try even harder to keep us invested in the fate of characters we already know we won’t see in the end.
And that brings me to another problem, one a lot of films like this run into that’s sometimes hard to avoid. The story structure gives everything away. Because we see the start of the apocalypse and the present day five years later, we already know where one story is going while the other keeps us in limbo throughout the project. This makes “Bird Box” predictable and takes some of the fun out of seeing how things play out. The present day segments of the film are nice as we get to see how Malorie has adapted her survival skills to make it to the sanctuary, but it takes us so long in the flashbacks to understand what motivates her that it’s difficult for us to invest fully in why she decided to make the trek to an unknown location. This also makes the flashback sequences harder to appreciate because we know everyone will either die, leave or become separated from her except for the children. Sure it’s fun to see HOW this happens but again it takes away from the surprise and shock of it all. “Bird Box” is a very fun horror thriller, and probably one of the creepiest movies of 2018, but it’s terribly predictable and that makes it much less entertaining that it deserves to be.
I actually enjoyed “Bird Box” as predictable as it is. It might be a very familiar film when you consider its similarities to “The Happening”, but it takes what should be an easy idea to make cool and does it justice by adapting the elements from the source material nicely onto the big and small screen (yes this did have a limited theatrical run). Sandra Bullock is a highlight of the picture and is complimented by other standout performers and although there are several actors and characters forsaken in this film the ones that shine do so bright enough to overpower the more forgettable ones. Still it’s hard not to acknowledge just how predictable “Bird Box” is which is pretty much a direct result of an interesting story structure that’s hard to pull off in any movie, let alone a horror flick. I do recommend “Bird Box” even if it’s not a perfect horror movie. It’s another good sign that Netflix can turn in quality work when given the right material and the right performers to back it up.