Directed by: Susanne Bier || Produced by: Chris Morgan, Scott Stuber, Dylan Clark, Clayton Townsend
Screenplay by: Eric Heisserer || Starring: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, Rosa Salazar, Danielle Macdonald, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, Colson Baker, BD Wong, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich
Music by: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross || Cinematography: Salvatore Totino || Edited by: Ben Lester || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 124 minutes
A film whose viral marketing and pop culture mania all but passed me by this holiday season was Netflix’s latest mainstream hit, Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier’s Bird Box. Adapted from the post-apocalyptic novel of the same name by Josh Malerman, the film’s success has puzzled some critics who find it more mediocre than trendsetting, claiming its creativity and execution lie somewhere in between M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008) and John Krasinksi’s A Quiet Place (2018). Having seen neither of the latter two films, and having only recently converted to the Temple of the Holy Netflix, I approached Bird Box with few expectations outside of wanting to understand the countless #BirdBoxChallenge clickbait articles I had dismissed in my Google News feed for several weeks. I suppose the viral marketing campaign won me over, in the end.
Bird Box’s reductive summation as a lesser Quiet Place/greater Happening may be accurate, if Krasinksi’s crowd-pleaser is as effective and Shyamaln’s disasterpiece as inept as others say. Its notable flashback structure may draw viewers in or turn them off depending on your preference for narrative suspense. On the one hand, you can deduce the ultimate conclusion of acts one and two within twenty minutes of the film’s flashback narrative (the movie’s opening reveals the survivors in the future-timeline). Then again, I’ve never been much for spoiler anxiety, myself; much of the joy of filmmaking, in my assessment, is seeing how a story unfolds rather than awaiting the formulaic plot beats of most every movie that isn’t written by the Coen Bros., Quentin Tarantino, or Taylor Sheridan. I’m not surprised in the slightest that lead Sandra Bullock and two cute child actors (Vivien Lyra Blair, Julian Edwards) make it to Act Three, and neither should you be.
The film’s true weaknesses lie in its premise and cryptic antagonists. The story’s inciting incident revolves around a mysterious pandemic (invasion? conjuring? religious judgement?) of psychotic behavior resulting in mass suicide. As Bullock’s protagonist guides us to our George A. Romero-like zombie invasion fortress, where we spend most of the narrative with her supporting cast (Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, BD Wong), we learn that a series of mysterious, ubiquitous, quasi-invisible entities either possess those who look upon them to kill themselves, or turn mentally unstable individuals hostile; the latter then force other survivors to look upon and thus be possessed by the entities.
If you haven’t yet seen Bird Box and think that description sounds goofy, then congratulations, you understand both the movie’s bizarre reception and the eponymous social media “challenges.” Characters avoid succumbing to the psychological (supernatural? biological? inexplicable?) possession of these nameless, faceless entities by closing their eyes or using blindfolds, which leads to tense yet awkward set-pieces where Bullock et al. flounder around blind for minutes at a time. Insane, non-suicidal, possessed hostiles add amusing twists to this weird horror formula.
It’s to director Bier’s credit many of these blind-leading-the-blind sequences are as tense and as fun as they are. Both the flashback sections and the present-day timeline, wherein Bullock navigates a river blindfolded with her two children to an ostensible safe haven, are well designed, well shot, and edited for maximum tension. Great parallel editing stretches these sequences for drama and entertaining banter, and even kept me on the edge of my seat at times. The aforementioned supporting castmembers (Rhodes, Malkovich, Weaver, Wong) have solid chemistry, which aides the flashback sequences, while Bullock, whom I normally don’t care for as an actress, carries the present-day timeline.
As I said, however, the film’s major problems are a function of its source material’s — and by extension, I assume, its screenplay’s — inexplicable post-apocalyptic diegesis. The film’s portrayal of its “possessed crazy people,” those who force the normal, blindfolded characters to look upon the mysterious entities, is inconsistent. Sometimes these minor antagonists are portrayed as raving lunatics, i.e. obviously hostile or insane, while other times they’re more akin to coordinated militiamen or sleeper agents. Then there are problems with the mysterious entities themselves, whose physical or metaphysical form is never revealed. That might not be a problem save for how their motivations, origins, and supernatural limitations are also never explained. I’m all for cryptic monsters and director’s not revealing the goods too soon, but Bird Box’s Achilles heel is how its goods are either (A) confusing or (B) nonexistent. Its central conflict has no payoff or big reveal save for Bullock’s overly sentimental arc.
I suppose Bird Box is worth watching if you’re a Netflix subscriber — in which case, you’ve probably already seen it — but it’s not a viewing experience of which to be jealous if you’re not. Most of the comparisons Bird Box has prompted seem to be the aforementioned Happening and A Quiet Place, but I think a better gauge of its quality is on the scale of Netflix Original Films, which range from well above the average theatrical release (e.g. The Apostle , The Night Comes for Us , Beasts of No Nation ) to 1990s Direct-to-Video quality (e.g. The Cloverfield Paradox , Bright [2017), The Ridiculous Six ). Bird Box isn’t on par with the latter, but it’s closer to that extreme than the former.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Susanne Bier’s first English-language hit is a good-looking, entertaining movie built atop a shaky foundation of lackluster screenwriting. Smaller problems like questionable dialogue and weaker castmembers (e.g. Colson Baker, Danielle Macdonald) are evened out by Sandra Bullock’s lead, more capable supporting actors, and an understated soundtrack by veterans Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The main problem is how Bird Box never climbs beyond its central gimmick, which seems more effective at building another stupid social media hashtag than an interesting, believable cinematic world.
—> ON THE FENCE
? Sandra Bullock is now a Hollywood cougar.