We all know how Netflix’s last big-budget original film released around the year-end holiday season went. I apologize for even reminding you that Bright exists, but I watched it for you, so I’m not that sorry! We suffer together! But this year’s Netflix offering, Academy Award winner Susanne Bier’s Bird Box — which premieres at midnight Dec. 21 on Netflix and will open in limited theaters around the U.S. that day too — is such a step up that I feel bad even comparing them in this paragraph.
Yes, both are big-concept movies about something else (Bright was a very messy take on race relations; Bird Box is a certainly less messy take on parenting), but most genre films, like the sci-fi of Bright or the post-apocalyptic thriller of Bird Box, are built around allegories and metaphors. That’s kind of the entire point! And Bird Box, led by a strong, against-type performance by Sandra Bullock, does a solid job of telling a story that compares the desire to destroy oneself with the constantly challenging, selfhood-sapping nature of being a parent.
Bird Box begins in present day, in a pine-covered landscape that is simultaneously lovely and desolate, with a tough-as-nails Malorie (Bullock) instructing the two children in her care: “You have to do every single thing I say or we will not make it,” she says to Boy and Girl, who both look about five years old. “It will hurt you,” she says of something. “If you look, you will die.”
That is a harsh warning! But this is a harsh world, one where Malorie and the children have to wear blindfolds so they don’t see whatever “it” is, hide themselves under blankets and sheets, and move tentatively throughout a landscape in which very few people seem to be. Where have they all gone? Perhaps to the compound Malorie hears about from a radio transmission, where a man tells anyone listening that they have a “community” looking for new members. But to get there, Malorie and the children will have to travel down a river, still blindfolded, for nearly three days. Can they do it? And what are they running from?
At this point, Bird Box jumps backward five years, and provides context for the lonely reality of Malorie, Boy, and Girl. Back then, Malorie was a pregnant artist, preparing for her first child with her anxious but loving sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson), by her side. They seem to have a sparring-but-supportive relationship, and it’s Jessica who drives Malorie to the hospital for her sonogram, although Malorie isn’t quite sure if she wants to raise her child. Yet things already seem … off. There are news reports of “unexplained mass suicides” and “mass psychotic behavior” sweeping through other parts of the world, and then all of a sudden, the epidemic is there.
A woman smashes her head repeatedly into a window. People start fighting in the streets. There are fires and explosions and car crashes and something else, something like a whisper, a rush of wind, that seems to transfix people and drive them to violence.
In this new nightmarish reality, Malorie makes her way inside a posh home with a variety of other characters (this whole conceit is a little “one of these people is not like the other!”, but go with it), including the racist and sexist Douglas (John Malkovich, of course), who resents Malorie almost immediately; former military member Tom (Trevante Rhodes, in a role somewhat similar to his turn in The Predator earlier this year); compassionate homeowner Greg (BD Wong, making me miss Mr. Robot), the conspiracy theory-spouting Charlie (Lil Rel Howery), police trainee Lucy (Rosa Salazar), and scumbag Felix (Machine Gun Kelly, credited here as Colson Baker; whatever, dude). Everyone is terrified and no one knows what’s going on, but they begin to understand that to survive what they nickname “the Problem,” they’ll need to stick together.
Bird Box continues between these two timelines to further develop Malorie, who mostly interacts with Douglas — standing up to him when he refuses to let anyone else into the house (which he doesn’t even own!), proving to him that she knows her way around a gun — and who grows increasingly closer to Tom (who teases that she looks like his “hot babysitter”; the chemistry between Rhodes and Bullock isn’t perfect, but it’s enough). Bullock is clearly the star here, and she does well selling the transition of the character; there’s a real Sigourney Weaver-like “take no shit” approach to her portrayal of Malorie that I appreciated.
And although, yes, the images of Bullock and other characters in blindfolds may bring to mind the similarly high-minded A Quiet Place, which denied its characters speech much like Bird Box denies them sight, I must admit that I respected Bier’s film in a different way, for being a little messier, for refusing to explain its central mystery, for being a little more cynical about the nature of parenthood than A Quiet Place was. John Krasinski and Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place were perfect parents (although I still don’t understand why they would choose to have another child in a world where vicious aliens are just killing people left and right), but Malorie in Bird Box isn’t that excited about parenthood. She’s unsure of whether she wants a child; when the “Problem” hits and the world starts going to shit, she realizes immediately how even more difficult her experience of motherhood will be.
Yet Malorie refuses to let herself, or anyone else in that home, get pushed around or bullied by Douglas. She grows into being a leader; she pushes against Douglas’s reasoning that “in the end, there are only two people: the assholes and the dead”; and she develops a method of motherhood that may seem brutal but is intent on survival. She merges love and practicality together in a way that still acknowledges the way parenthood can sometimes deny you of self.
Bullock’s great performance aside, Bier’s film, adapted from the 2014 novel by Josh Malerman, is a little uneven; there’s a subplot involving how certain people (including the criminally insane) can see the “Problem” and not get affected by it that feels a little exploitative, and some of the dialogue by Eric Heisserer (who previously wrote the 2011 remake of The Thing, 2016’s surprisingly OK Lights Out, and the excellent Arrival, and is uncredited on the very bad Netflix movie Extinction) is clunky and cliched. But the music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is suspenseful, the cinematography by Salvatore Totino really frames what Malorie and the children are facing during this river journey, and the spookiness of invisible beings urging you to harm yourself and others is, while familiar (I’m thinking of a particular X-Files episode here), nevertheless effective.
“Someone has to look,” Malorie says, and the idea of sacrifice is a common theme throughout Bird Box: What else are the people who are hurting themselves doing than sacrificing themselves to the will of these unseen entities? Isn’t putting herself in danger to protect these children exactly what Malorie is doing, too? But what is worth the loss of self, and what isn’t? Maybe there’s a simple answer to that, but Bird Box complicates it enough to make it quite compelling.
(I will say that both Bird Box trailers give a good amount of the movie away, so, head’s up on that.) Bird Box premieres on Netflix on December 21, 2018.
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