By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 28, 2018
Released Dec. 21, 2018
Rated R – 2hr 4min
Directed by Susanne Bier
Starring Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson
Pregnant Malorie (Bullock) and her sister Jessica (Paulson) are at the hospital for Malorie’s doctor appointment when chaos breaks out – a mysterious entity begins attacking people that, if seen, causes instant and often suicidal psychosis. Malorie, after losing Jessica to the malevolent force, finds refuge in a house with other survivors, including war veteran Tom (Rhodes) and cantankerous lawyer Douglas (Malkovich). Flash forward five years and Malorie and her two children, Boy and Girl, are making a treacherous and virtually impossible journey to possible sanctuary 20 miles down a river blindfolded.
Bird Box is a timeline-jumping post-apocalyptic survival horror-drama. It jumps frequently between its present narrative on the river and its flashback narrative as to how the main protagonist and her children wound up on this journey. The focus is largely on story and characters above all else.
When I say it jumps frequently, I mean that it jumps so often that Bird Box seems more like a collection of related short films than it does a fully cohesive movie. While all of its components are of a top-shelf theatrical quality, its distinctly episodic nature is an odd choice of presentation. This was developed and produced specifically for Netflix, as opposed to being an acquisition, and it’s another one of their big swings for the fences in their bid to compete with traditional distribution models. It leads me to wonder if the company hasn’t developed their own unique formula for how a film should be structured based upon their perception of what their subscribers enjoy – and what many subscribers enjoy is binge watching television. That’s what Bird Box is – a binge watch in fast-motion.
I know that new Robin Hood movie was bad, but I don’t know if it was necessarily soul-shattering.
There’s something like 15 principal roles in this film and Sandra Bullock is in about 95% of the scenes, so that’s a lot of people to put in orbit around the lead in a two-hour runtime. I even lost track of one character, so it was somewhat jarring when they suddenly re-appeared and did a thing. In fact, the constant ping-ponging back and forth between two different narratives – each with drastically different settings and dramatic stakes along with their own sets of supporting characters – couldn’t have been anything but jarring with such a high-concept story in play. It’s exceedingly easy throughout to forget that this is, essentially, a horror movie because the constant shifts and toggles allow for no atmosphere or tension to develop. That is, outside of the opening 20 minutes which had me mentally clearing a spot on my Top 10 of ’18 List for Bird Box – the mess hits in the fan in rather spectacular fashion, so the mysterious antagonists are well-established here. There’s no doubts as to the danger they pose.
Wonder why it’s called Bird Box like I did? That’s because there is a literal box of birds in it. These are the birds that will eventually be shoved inside of it.
So, over-stuffed story and off-putting presentation aside, the film is interesting. Much has been made of its conceptual similarities to A Quiet Place, but apart from being based around apocalypses caused by enigmatic creatures that have a sensory mode of attack and having some underlying theme about parental responsibility, they are two very different movies. Even if the correlation seems too much, Bird Box is based on a 5-year-old novel, so it wins the ‘First!’ game anyway. That aside, with a cast like this, an expectation for strong performances is the default, and Bullock & Co. do not disappoint. She and Malkovich, in particular, exhibit effortless command of the screen at this point in their careers and Trevante Rhodes is quickly rising in that regard as well. Along with Sarah Paulson, the movie shines when Bullock is sharing scenes with one of them, but it also expedites the speed at which many other supporting characters vanish into the scenery. It again raises the question as to why so much energy was expended on such a sprawling cast and their development, so even in praise, the lack of narrative focus rises to the surface.
Complaints aside, Bird Box is certainly worth watching, even if its horror elements take a far back seat to many other elements. It plays like a much-better realized attempt at M. Night Shymalan’s misfire The Happening, and that’s actually not a bad thing to be. It is, however, one of those ‘not the sum of its parts’ efforts, where all of its quality components are not put together in a way that capitalizes on their full value. (And seriously – the kids’ names are Boy and Girl? I get the lack of attachment vibe being attempted, but it’s exactly as silly as it sounds when she’s shouting for them on the river. It’s needlessly ridiculous.)
Bird Box gets a rating of