Review: Bird Box (2018)

Bird Box is Netflix’s take on the post-apocalyptic horror genre, similar to films such as A Quiet Place in its dedication more to the method of survival than to the horrors of whatever monstrosity is causing that struggle.

Bird Box follows Malorie Hayes (Sandra Bullock) both during the initial disaster where she finds herself among a ragtag band of rather generic survivors, and five years later as she guides two children down river toward hopeful salvation. Some undefined creatures have been released upon the world, causing suicidal frenzy upon those who witness their presence – survival means blinding oneself to the outside world.

The central problem with Bird Box feels like one of pure machination. The narrative is Lovecraftian in concept, which is a genre that has never quite seen a proper film adaptation. You never have to show your monster – Jaws is a classic due to the way it maneuvers around direct representation – but you have to do something to establish the menacing presence.

These creatures work to a certain degree, but it’s never very satisfying. Everything it evokes is cliched, from ominous wind to whispering voices. The problem is Bird Box barely defines their intent while also suggesting the creatures are malevolent through that whispering. If they are actively evil, what’s stopping them from doing more? Are they incapable of touch, of going inside? The premise would work better if the creatures simply existed, their danger being that mere existence – but then they would have had to come up with something more creative than whispering.

But like most modern films in this style, Bird Box wants us to focus more on the interpersonal conflict among the survivors. It is unfortunately more cliched in that regard. A rather stellar cast of actors is given little to work with; the big names play their parts well enough, but they can only do so much with ‘angry drunk man’ and ‘old woman.’ The future story also makes it clear what will happen to everyone here. There are few gripping moral dilemmas, and the characters never develop enough to care what happens. It’s as rudimentary as these plot lines get.

The one place where Bird Box works well is in the river segment. Though the interweaving of the two narratives spoils the earlier story, it also manages some excellent foreshadowing. We first encounter a madman during the river sequence, a familiar matter to this future Malorie but an unknown threat to the earlier survivors. There’s also the lingering question of which of the two children is her biological child. Questions in one sequence are answered in the other, and a few of the climactic scenes on the river really work because of it.

It says a lot that a film with Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver and Sarah Paulson has its most powerful moment delivered by a child. This is a story that works best while playing to its subtleties, but it gets too caught up in a familiar narrative structure.

All in all, Bird Box is a decent stab at a difficult subject matter. I doubt a proper adaptation of this style of literature would be impossible – but the film holds too much to traditional narrative structure when the story requires at least some experimentation to capture certain elements. Where films like It Comes at Night and The Witch succeed by dragging out the unknown, everything here is played too blatantly. It’s a horror that wants to be a drama, but the drama is rarely solid enough and the horror too simplistic to make up for it.

2.5 Stars Out of 5

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