Bird Box is a respectably moody and intelligent psychological thriller, if also a relatively muddled supernatural horror allegory.
The latest addition to Netflix's collection of original movies, Bird Box is an adaptation of the 2014 horror-thriller novel by Josh Malerman (of the rock band The High Strung). Universal optioned the film rights prior to the book's publication and even had IT helmer Andy Muschietti attached to direct at one point. The project later moved to Netflix, with Eric Heisserer (Arrival) writing the adapted script and Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) directing. Between its creatives and star Sandra Bullock, the film is pretty stacked with talent and makes for a (mostly) worthwhile genre movie. Bird Box is a respectably moody and intelligent psychological thriller, if also a relatively muddled supernatural horror allegory.
Bullock stars in Bird Box as Malorie Shannon, a modern painter who is preparing to give birth to her first child, despite only having her sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) for support. One day, reports come in that people in Russia are committing mass suicide for no clear reason, which in turn inspires people in the U.S. to panic and start preparing for the event to reach North America. Malorie and Jessica are naturally alarmed by this, but assume they're safe for the time being and make their way to a local hospital for Malorie's scheduled checkup.
However, while they're at the hospital, people start committing suicide, and Malorie barely manages to escape and seek shelter at a house with several other people, including a wealthy fellow named Douglas (John Malkovich). Along with the others hiding there - like a gentle military veteran named Tom (Trevante Rhodes) - Malorie comes to realize that the seemingly supernatural entities responsible for all this can only hurt people if they look at them. Armed with that knowledge and not much else, it falls to Malorie, Tom, and the others to figure out a long-term solution to staying alive in this strange (and extremely dangerous) new world.
While there are shades of The Happening and The Road in Bird Box (which Malerman started writing before either film came out), the movie version also begs comparison to A Quiet Place because of its similar use of atmosphere and shared themes about parenthood - more specifically motherhood, in Bird Box's case. Overall, Bier's film is smarter and more carefully constructed than The Happening, but lacks the intricate world-building and attention to detail of A Quiet Place. Heisserer's script is also clever in the way it frames the scenes at Douglas' place with flash-forwards to Malorie's life in the post-apocalyptic world. While the film's circular narrative design doesn't bring out deeper layers of meaning to its story the same way Heisserer's Arrival screenplay and its own circular plot did, it does allow Bird Box to play out as a combination of two different survival thrillers for the price of one.
Bird Box's monsters are similarly intriguing and unnerving, despite the film's habit of being somewhat wishy-washy about how they work and what they can and cannot do. The movie partly gets away with this simply because the creatures are meant to be fantastical (and, thus, cannot be fully understood), but it also diminishes the tension in certain sequences. Overall, though, Bier wrings a good deal of suspense out of the film's premise and creates some white-knuckle moments through subtly and implication, rather than in-your-face terrors (the movie's gory scenes aside). Bird Box further ratchets up the psychological horror factor with its cinematography, as Bier and DP Salvatore Totino (Spider-Man: Homecoming) focus the camera primarily on what the film's protagonists' can see, while offering little more than fleeting glimpses of what they cannot. The movie also benefits from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' characteristically unsettling score, during its louder scenes.
Cast-wise, Bird Box is a showcase for Bullock above all else, and the Oscar-winner rises to the occasion with a performance that's all the more compelling thanks to Malorie's arc from semi-disillusioned adult to full-blown warrior mom over the course of the story. Rhodes is equally sweet and sensitive in his role as Tom, and makes for a nice foil to Malkovich's unapologetically self-serving Douglas especially. The other characters here are never really fully developed and tend to represent ideas about how people would respond to the (quasi-literal) end of the world, as opposed to three-dimensional people. Bird Box's supporting cast is loaded with strong talent (see: Rosa Salazar, Jacki Weaver, BD Wong, Tom Hollander, and so on), and they make the most of what they're given to work with here, all the same.
Like Heisserer and Bier's previous work, Bird Box use genre tropes to tell a story with distinct social, political, and even spiritual overtones. Unfortunately, the film sometimes struggles to balance its thriller elements with thought-provoking drama and conversations. As a result, Bird Box's subtext can be messy or unclear and its larger commentary about the difference between survival and living (not to mention, its religious allusions) can come across as clunky and preachy, rather than organic to the story. Still, its messages are worthy of appreciation and the movie generally works as a parable about the experience of becoming a mother in a world that seems to grow increasingly dangerous by the day.
Bird Box is showing in select U.S. markets but, all things considered, it's not really a must-see on the big screen compared to the other films currently playing in theaters (or arriving before December draws to a close). However, since most people will probably be watching it on Netflix anyway, it's certainly worth a recommendation for anyone who's in the mood to stream it. It might not be as ground-breaking or innovative as other Netflix Originals, but there's something to be said for a perfectly sturdy horror-thriller (like Bird Box) to close out what's been a pretty dang strong year for the genres overall.
Bird Box is now playing in select U.S. theaters and is streaming through Netflix. It is 124 minutes long and is rated R for violence, bloody images, language and brief sexuality.
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