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Film
by Karin Lowachee

Bird Box Never Quite Takes Off

This review contains spoilers.

 

The Netflix–distributed Bird Box, a film based on the 2014 debut novel by Josh Malerman and starring Everyone Loves Sandra Bullock, was apparently streamed by forty-five million accounts in the first week. Though Netflix's viewership numbers are arrived at through alchemy and top secret clearances, The Verge was able to verify that the streaming service only counts content as "viewed" if seventy percent or more of its running time has been watched, and they do not reckon multiple viewings on the same account. This is still a lot of eyeballs on a movie during a short space of time, though the fact Bird Box was released on Netflix for the Christmas holiday could have something to do with that. Forever savvy with their algorithms, Netflix understands that people are more prone to binge from a couch when they don't have to go to work the next day. When those same people also tend to hit up their socials to voice opinion, create memes, and generally carry momentum for "what's good?" into the new year, then it's small wonder that a Bird Box in the hand holding the remote control became two in the bush.

Although the Academy and festivals like Cannes have been reluctant to acknowledge Netflix content as "worthy" of consideration as more traditionally produced films, there has been a noticeable sea change, or perhaps a forced reevaluation, with so many A-list and high-powered acting talent, directors, and producers wooed by Netflix's general hands-off approach. In Bird Box, Everyone Loves Sandra Bullock was joined by none other than John Malkovich Being John Malkovich and fresh-off-of-Moonlight Trevante Rhodes; these heavyweights were quick on the heels of Alfonso Cuarón and the Coen brothers, who had already created Oscar-worthy content for the streaming giant.

Unlike Cuarón's Roma and the Coens' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, however, Bird Box can hardly stand shoulder to shoulder with more polished and sophisticated works. Though early conversation on Bird Box, following the release of its trailers, offered a possibility of the film being an Oscar hopeful, it rightly wasn't in the end, and here might be some of the reasons why: the threat is sketchy (quite literally at one point), the characterizations are weak and their decisions problematic, and much of the suspense is killed by an unnecessary flashback framing device.

The opening scene is of Bullock's character, Malorie, admonishing two toddlers to do exactly as she says. The viewer realizes immediately that this is a matter of life and death, but as the narrative quickly shows that Malorie and the kids are the only ones left alive, the entire two hours of the film become simply a checklist of often anticlimactic deaths interspersed with our heroine paddling furiously down a river blindfolded. Framing devices can be effective when juxtaposed with a sense of mystery in the past or future timeline, or even to work as enlightenment upon the other timeline's narrative in often thematic ways, but in Bird Box, all the future timeline accomplishes is breaking up an already predictable story with off-kilter emotional beats while functioning as one massive spoiler. If the movie was presented in chronological order, even if the viewer could surmise that the characters would generally meet the fate of most horror movie characters, there would at least be a little doubt, and consequently hope, particularly for Rhodes's character Tom, who becomes Malorie's love interest and supposed Accomplished Survivor. Stripped of that hope, Tom's death, like all the others, is expected and falls flat. We are not emotionally invested in any of these walking plot devices, and though Bullock is a fantastic actress, Malorie is played as disconnected and no-nonsense, so the viewer is already removed from any sort of beating heart in the film.

Perhaps the children are supposed to take up the slack for this bloodless narrative, but instead they become yet another example of Young Deadweight that Hollywood seems so fond of foisting on grown-up movies. Malorie doesn't even give them names in some abstract attempt not to bond with them, but as the children are a few years grown by the end of the film, one would think Malorie would have to be a sociopath not to at least give an honest damn enough to grant them bare-bones identities. The movie also makes the annoying mistake of using Young Deadweight in place of Narrative Believability in order to fabricate suspense or something on the scale of horror, allowing Girl to wander off into the woods when she knows better, and Boy to fall into the river, which only begs the question why Malorie couldn't find a bungee cord to tether these kids to her or make them sit at the bottom of the boat instead of on the bench so they wouldn't be thrown overboard when they're all riding the rapids in blindfolds.

Young Deadweight aren't the only problematic characterizations, though, if we can even call the cannon fodder of personnel in this movie proper people. The filmmakers evidently didn't go to the James Cameron Aliens school of creating dynamic secondary characters, since these people are painted with the barest of brushstrokes before they kamikaze themselves into windowpanes, or something. John Malkovich Being John Malkovich does more than most, as would be expected, offering essential practical advice to surviving an apocalypse nobody understands, but naturally he's ignored and considered a horrible human being, as if his irascible mode of delivery is more of a crime than following his common sense. We almost root for these civilians to walk into the daylight, eyes open, because they continue to believe there's good in folks, only to die later from their stupid decisions.

The one character that could possibly imbue some order and tactics to the situation—Rhodes's Iraq war veteran—only contributes by way of a maudlin story from his deployment and some random caution in opening doors. Later he sacrifices himself for Malorie and the Young Deadweight (of course), and we're left to wonder how this G.I. Joe even got them from the house to some cottage in the woods using GPS and, one presumes, limited fuel. How did they find a working car when Pointless Young Couple took off with the one in John Malkovich's garage? (And how far did those selfish wonders think they would get, really?) There are more problematic characterizations in Pregnant Girl From Dumplin' and Old Lady—with the ever reliable B. D. Wong losing in the survivor lottery early on, the way only smart gay or POC characters can—but it's neither here nor there. There is the barest of hearts in Malorie and Tom's relationship, but the build-up for it is so paint-by-numbers that it ultimately works as just another beat in an already predictable plot.

Which brings us to the Big Bad, the alien or virus or alien virus evil something-or-other that makes any who look upon its face fall into the Pit of Despair, in increasingly prosaic and boring ways. Poor Sarah Paulson gets the most striking death of them all in the beginning, splattering herself on the grill of a semi, and it all goes downhill from there. Perhaps the problem lies in the inconsistent "rules" surrounding this alien or virus or alien virus—you can't look at it and not want to suicide, but a blindfold that still lets in some light can help you while a house security camera feed does not. You hear voices sometimes, or not; it can get into your head, or not; if you're already insane it doesn't affect you...maybe; the unaffected are actually just infected...or something. There are just no clearcut rules for these creatures and the random sketches showed by That Guy they shouldn't have let inside the house depict what appears to be some vetoed drawings of the demogorgan from the Stranger Things art department. Ultimately the threat just doesn't feel that threatening, especially for a horror movie, because the main problems to survival are the characters' bad decisions. Even if Bird Box wasn't claiming more in its horror than "those things are bad to look at," it didn't tend to hit the most minimum creep factor due to the uncharismatic deaths and the creatures' ongoing characteristics of convenience.

While Bird Box seemed to be trying to say something about the nature of evil or looking into our own darkness and how difficult it can be to reconcile with it, or whatever, the movie ultimately creates a nonsensical approach that doesn't deepen into anything or even provide any real scares the way a horror film should. Its plot flaws—beyond what was mentioned here—emerge as more egregious even than those in A Quiet Place, a comparison that cannot be avoided, and there is not enough gravitas to the concept to lift it out of a superficial thought experiment. In the end, Bird Box comes across as an attempt to meld José Saramago's Blindness with Stephen King's The Mist, but can't seem to get its own execution off the ground.

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