Director: Susanne Bier
Stars: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, Sarah Paulson
In 1988 John Carpenter made They Live, an apocalyptic sci-fi yarn that spoke of the blindness in society to rampant, soulless consumerism and also complacent, illadvised trust in authority. It received lukewarm responses and achieved a middling box office performance. It has become a cult classic, as much for its prescient ‘wokeness’ as for the largess of ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper’s unique central performance. Ironically, however, one if its central motifs – subliminal messages that urge people to OBEY – has been co-opted as a meaningless slogan for millennial clothing. Consumerism won after all.
Thirty years later, here’s Susanne Bier’s Bird Box, released onto Netflix and – according to the streaming service itself – already a massive success. Where They Live was about hidden societal dangers – the things we need to see – Bird Box is about blinding yourself to danger. A questionable message in an age of, frankly, too many scandals to keep track of.
The film presents a split narrative. In the ‘future’, survivalist Malorie (Sandra Bullock) journeys blindfolded down a river with two children in tow to some unknown destination. Via flashbacks we witness the start of the mysterious epidemic that led to worldwide downfall; an outbreak of mass suicides seemingly caused by seeing something that can be anywhere outside. Heavily pregnant at the time, Malorie holes up in the home of sassy alcoholic asshole Douglas (John Malkovich), along with a broad spectrum of other survivors. The film charts their search for food, safety, and answers about the fate befalling them.
With an unseen threat to the senses, the apocalyptic angle and by using pregnancy as a narrative ticking time bomb, Bird Box has quite understandably drawn frequent comparisons to one of this year’s other word-of-mouth hits, A Quiet Place. However Bier’s film has little of Krasinski’s panache for pure visual storytelling. With eyes covered, the busy roster of characters gab over one another incessantly. Especially to begin with, there’s a panicked clutter to Bird Box that recalls the supermarket section of The Mist more than anything. Zipping back and forth on the timeline actually helps alleviate this sense of bombardment, as the sequences taking place on the river are far quieter and eerier. And, as one might expect, numbers dwindle the further through the story you get…
Bier has assembled a decent cast here, though results are mixed. Bullock holds her own in the lead, channelling the resilient wherewithal she previously brought to the likes of Speed and Gravity. Malkovich, predictably, plays things big and will no doubt grate for some viewers. Elsewhere, its pleasing to find Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes picking up more screen time in anything, while the likes of Lil Rel Howery, Sarah Paulson and BD Wong add much in spite of limited material.
Still, when Bird Box finds its stride – when it’s not flailing with arms wide – it functions as an engaging and immediate thriller, one that veers into horror territory. A mid-section with Tom Hollander that throws chaos into the fragile dynamic is a case in point. The romantic chemistry between Bullock and Rhodes is easy and enjoyable to buy into, also. I mean, just look at them.
More so than in A Quiet Place, questionable decisions made by this film’s characters are the cause of frustration, largely surrounding the dangerous and ineffective misuse of firearms. Bier could’ve dialled back some of the dialogue, too, as the film has a tendency to over-explain the self-evident (Malorie’s promise to Olympia) or throw howlers into Malkovich’s mouth. But perhaps that’s the point being made by Bird Box? Everyone is too busy chattering and nobody’s really paying proper attention.
There’s a lot to be afraid of outside as we head into 2019. Bird Box effectively conveys that feeling of helplessness in the face of myriad problems; the urge to bury one’s head in the sand. It also suggests that the world’s demons are simply too gargantuan to face; a far bleaker and more defeatist message than the one Carpenter offered us thirty years ago.
Maybe everyone in this movie just needs to put on the fucking sunglasses (go watch They Live, you’ll understand).