Movie Review: "Bird Box" (Netflix, 2018)
What do The Happening, The Mist, and A Quiet Place all have in common? The answer is the outrageously popular Netflix film Bird Box, based on the novel by Josh Malerman, a movie which improves greatly on Shyamalan’s misstep while having the soul of King’s masterwork and providing a viewing experience very similar to Krasinski’s smash hit.
Bird Box stars Sandra Bullock (Miss Congeniality, Speed) in a rare genre outing as Malorie, a woman trying to survive and keep two children (simply named Boy and Girl) alive in a world where an unseen menace has caused mass suicide across the globe. All you have to do is see it and your eyes go dead and black before you use whatever is at your disposal to commit suicide as brutally as possible. Told in two different time frames, we see an expectant Malorie going for an ultrasound with her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson; American Horror Story), as they discuss the rash of suicide on the other side of the world. Before you can say “why is that woman bashing her head into the window over and over again?”, the horror has come to America and the shit is all up in the proverbial fan. Highly pregnant Malorie takes refuge in home full of other survivors: irascible and cold-hearted Douglas (John Malkovich; Being John Malkovich), tender Greg (BD Wong; Jurassic Park), strong and capable veteran Tom (Trevante Rhodes; The Predator), maternal Cheryl (Jacki Weaver; Silver Linings Playbook), pregnant and shell-shocked Olympia (Danielle McDonald; Patti Cake$), comedic relief Charlie (Lil Rey Howery; Get Out), sleazy and selfish Felix (rapper Machine Gun Kelly), and equally selfish Lucy (Rosa Salazar; Alita: Battle Angel). The other time frame finds her holed up with Boy and Girl in a cabin in the woods, preparing to make a dangerous blindfolded trek up a river to a safe haven she’s heard about on the radio. To even attempt it is suicidal, but they don’t really have any choice.
It’s no secret that Sandra Bullock is one of the best actresses in the world, but she really shows her chops in a fairly thin script. Her relationship with Tom is as real and palpable as anything you are likely to see in this or any other year. That dude has star written all over him, and their chemistry is the driving engine. Equally impressive, though, is an ensemble cast that shines in their own turns. Bullock and Malkovich quickly develop a complex relationship that will hold you rapt. John Malkovich is simply THE SHIT. He just is. The characters are all archetypes of the genre (hence by description of each), but that’s hardly a deal breaker. The cast is just so good that it’s not an issue, even with that thinness in the dialogue.
Tension is the name of the game in either time frame, and Bird Box does it to perfection. The first 30 or so minutes of the initial outbreak are complete and utter nightmare fuel. Let me tell you, if some shit like that really went down it would look this way- people crashing their cars, stepping in front of buses, casually having a seat in a burning vehicle, jumping off of buildings…it’s legitimately jarring to watch. That tension level never really drops. I don’t want to ruin any of the surprises, but you won’t be able to walk away from this one without some images burned into your mind. It’s viciously effective.
The big debate in a movie like this is, of course, when you reveal the “creatures” that are causing all of this hysteria and death. Bird Box dares to do something truly ballsy and simply not show them to you. Operating on the old truism of your mind conjuring up the worst possible thing, they never even give you a glimpse. I’ll be honest- this bothered me at first. It still does, but I am coming to grips with why they did it. From a storytelling perspective, I understand it completely. When you see them, you are overwhelmed with the most powerful sadness/depression/loneliness imaginable and see whatever that is. Therefore, it would be different for everyone. It’s a bold choice based in simple story logic, and I have come around to supporting it.
I do still want to see that creature, but I guess I’ll have to just live with it.
There are themes of motherhood and environmental backlash at play here, though neither are fully cooked or in your face. That’s not a bad thing; at least it wasn’t preachy. I can’t stand a preachy movie. The motherhood aspect is key, though, as Malorie is NOT the glowing and expectant mother that Olympia is. Bullock is steely in her performance, totally relatable but not overly sympathetic. She doesn’t even give the children names!
The group mentality and survival issues are pure Stephen King and were the big highlight for me. These divergent personalities tested in a situation of extreme horror is a tale as old as time itself. When it’s done well the result is a thing of terrible beauty. There are genuine shocks to be had along with a reveal about how some folks are affected differently that fleshes it out in wonderfully nasty (though slightly unoriginal) fashion.
Some folks may have gripes and logic questions about the ending, but I was totally on-board with it. I’m obviously not going to give it away (this is essentially spoiler-free, after all), but you’ll see what I mean. The story is rounded out in a satisfying way and even leaves room for more.
Bird Box has been viewed over 45 million times in its first week, making it Netflix’s most successful film to date. Those are pretty stout numbers, but this is a movie that more than backs it up. It’s not perfect, but Bird Box is a movie that will stand the test of time. I imagine that Shyamalan watched it with chagrin.
Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0 stars