Netflix brings the star power to the streaming side of movies with ‘Bird Box,’ featuring Academy Award and Golden Globe winner Sandra Bullock in a strong performance in the lead role of the film. Add in Academy Award nominee John Malkovich and a harrowing tale based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Josh Malerman, and we’ve seemingly got a recipe for a “home run” type of film. Or do we? Similar to the
The story opens on Bullock’s character, Malorie: she’s giving firm instructions to two young children about the obstacles they are about to face in a downriver boat ride, about obeying her every command, and about leaving their blindfolds on, no matter what happens. Flashback to “five years earlier,” and Malorie is traveling to a prenatal doctor’s appointment with her sister, who has alerted Malorie to the news stories about mass suicides in Europe and Asia – people who seemingly fall under some sort of spell and hurt themselves to the point of their own death. As the duo leave the scheduled appointment at the hospital, it becomes clear that the self-harm issue has made its way to the US, as the city around them erupts into chaos.
Malorie manages to get to get holed up in a large house with a handful of other survivors, and much of the remainder of the “flashback” sequence is spent showing their struggle for survival and attempting to come to terms with what’s going on around them. The “working theory” that evolves is that there are some type of creatures on the loose outside – they can’t come inside, but if you look at them or see them outside, you are instantly driven insane, culminating in suicide. A small group of people seem to have “immunity” to this, but their symptoms instead focus on getting all other humans to look outside and “see the beauty.”
Interspersed through all of this are moments of Malorie’s journey down the river with the two children, and eventually the two timelines sync up as the film nears its conclusion. It’s not a major spoiler to tell you that this is not a film that provides all the answers to the questions it poses in neat, easy-to-understand ways. It’s a very open-ended conclusion, so be forewarned, as this type of cinematic climax does not please all the people all the time.
Visually, the film is presented in a fairly minimal presentation, but due to the type of tale we have here, it works very effectively. The death/suicide scenes are just gruesome enough to drive the horrific point home. Unlike the creatures in, say, ‘A Quiet Place‘ (a film that ‘Bird Box’ has much been compared to recently, and rather unfairly at that), the menace of ‘Bird Box’ is always present but is only seen in fleeting glimpses and mostly-off-camera moments.
The acting is stellar, with not only the inclusion of Bullock and Malkovich but also from a supporting cast that features such recognizable names and faces as Sara Paulson, Lil Rel Howery, BD Wong, and more. Bullock leads the way as a very believable young woman who finds herself pregnant when she doesn’t necessarily want to be. Much of the journey of the film is hers to take emotionally, as she tries to come to grips with not only the seeming end of the world, but also with her ability or lack thereof to become a caring mother figure.
This, unfortunately, is also where the movie takes several missteps. The focus is put so squarely on Malorie that all other characters aren’t given enough screen time to make the viewer care about them, and they ultimately are nothing more than empty shells of “story filler.” The biggest issue comes at the expense of the primary interpersonal revelation of the film: Bullock’s Malorie is traveling a path so forcefully to become a good mother figure, that it almost feels like it necessitated the end-of-the-world scenario just to get here there. Are 6 billion-ish lives the price to pay for one pregnant woman to finally get to feel motherly?
When it’s all said and done, you’ll probably see what I see: a phenomenal cast, a great premise, but poor execution and questionable focus on what’s truly important in the plot all combine to end up making ‘Bird Box’ feel like a decidedly average film.