Bird Box (2018)
The unfolding apocalypse and the unseen forces that bring it about are never fully explained in Bird Box. The movies also eschews overblown, CGI driven set pieces and spectacle. The scenario is simply the MacGuffin which director Susanne Bier uses to facilitate her exploration of the angst of motherhood and societal decay. This is superficially a genre movie but it’s mainly about people, performances and ideas. There have been some comparisons to A Quiet Place, but this movie is actually closer to The Mist. The film is at its best during the first act, when setting up its premise and at the start of “the event”. The second act remains above average mainly due to the strength of the cast, as they weather the ongoing storm. The denouement is somewhat functional and is possibly the weakest aspect of the film. Yet, the strength of what has gone before and as ever the robust nature of Sandra Bullock’s performance keeps things on track.
Artists Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is pregnant and struggling to come to terms with her impending motherhood. While in hospital for a routine check-up, she and her sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) witness an outbreak of mass psychosis. Driven by some unseen force, people start killing themselves. Fleeing the ensuing carnage, they escape by car only to crash due to the ongoing unrest. Malorie takes shelter along with others in a large house, owned by suburban house husband Greg (BD Wong). Among the survivors are Greg’s surly neighbour Douglas (John Malkovitch) and ex-soldier Tom (Trevante Rhodes). They theorise that the unseen force kills you by manifesting itself as your greatest fear or tricks you by pretending to be a loved one or friend. Trapped and with diminishing supplies the group realise that if they venture outside, they will have to remain blindfolded, rather than risk seeing the threatening malevolent presence.
The initial scenes of chaos and its rapid spread are well handled by director Susanne Bier. The depiction of people beating their heads against plate glass windows, stepping out into traffic and acts of self-immolation are genuinely shocking. Because the scope and scale of these events are far more localised, as opposed the grandiose aerial shots of the zombie apocalypse in Wold War Z, they are quite powerful. The focus on character during the scenes where the cast are secure in the house or when they venture out to the supermarket are also refreshing. Instead of excessive set pieces, we simply get a strong study of beleaguered people trying hard not to lose their grip on reality. Sometimes the script by Eric Heisserer (Arrival, Extinction) does become a little too expositionary. But there are enough succinct musings and philosophical introspection among the cast to keep things moving forward.
Bird Box presents viewers with two timelines, one set during the apocalypse and the other five years on. The first deals with the survivors and their struggle to secure their house. The second focuses on Malorie’s blindfolded journey down a river with two young children. Both are well crafted but the conspicuous absence in the latter timeline of some of the protagonists from the first, somewhat mitigates the tension, as most viewers will accurately surmise their fate. The final act is also predictable as the screenplay paints the narrative into a dramatic corner. Again, astute audiences will guess the way events will end and the conceit of the film conclusion. That is not to say that the story’s resolution is inadequate, but it is somewhat reduced in impact as a result of its lack of surprise. However, Sandra Bullock does a lot of heavy lifting here and carries the proceedings over the finish line.
Despite the inconsistencies of the script, Bird Box hits its stride when it focuses on the basics. By presenting us with a precarious safe place to hide from the apocalypse, it gives audiences an opportunity to muse upon how they would react under such circumstances. If also gives us a sufficient glimpse of “hell on earth” rather than belabouring us with endless CGI showreels. The enigmatic foe (or foes) are also an intriguing plot device. What the screenplay alludes to as to what is exactly happening, is just enough to oil the wheels of suspense. It’s a timely reminder that less can indeed be more. Finally, it should be noted that Netflix movies do not carry much overt information with regard to ratings. Bird Box is not a family friendly film and it would have certainly received a R rating if released theatrically. The lack of computer-generated spectacle does not mean an absence of violence.