Directed by Susanne Bier
Starring Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich
The Netflix apocalypse drama Bird Box has to contend with the unfortunate reality of being released the same year as that other, much more critically acclaimed, apocalyptic drama A Quiet Place—but timing isn’t the only thing working against it: A Quiet Place had easier to grasp rules for survival and an ultimately tangible adversary. Bird Box, meanwhile, has muddled internal rules and monsters that the filmmakers unwisely choose to withhold. The film toggles between the start of the global catastrophe—with people killing themselves after witnessing offscreen entities (all we see is something eerie happening to their pupils)—and half a decade later, when society has presumably broken down and a desperate mother named Malorie (Sandra Bullock) has to take two children (Julian Edwards and Vivian Lyra Blair) blindfolded on a two-day journey down a river to the presumed safety of a colony.
Everything about Bird Box’s conceit feels clumsy. There are expository exhortations from Malorie to the kids to keep their blindfolds on during the boat ride and to disregard whatever they hear in the surrounding forest; you’d think being born in a world after these deadly beings overran the earth hasn’t made these rules second nature to these children. There is the idea of having a band of survivors taking shelter against the raging apocalypse in close quarters. In Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist, the point of having stragglers cooped up in a supermarket is to draw these characters out and show how their contradictory natures eventually make other people more lethal than any phantom menace. In Bird Box, characters are barely shaded in before they are dispatched, in a revolving-door setup that makes room for other unmemorable characters to goose the plot along (most notably, PattiCake$’ Danielle Macdonald as a second pregnant survivor and Tom Hollander as a squirrelly refugee who turns out to be the emissary of another band of deadly survivors).
There are other questions that pop up as you watch—Why five years? (So the kids can get old enough to go on a trip, natch.) Why use blindfolds? (Intermittent POV shots reveal they don’t filter out all visual input anyway.) But the decision to not show the monsters altogether is the contrivance that proves to be Bird Box’s ultimate undoing. Everyone from Jaws to The X-Files has had to grapple with the question of how much creature to feature, but they eventually did choose to show their monsters, if only because the plot demanded these reveals to provide audiences with a climax. No such closure is forthcoming in Bird Box, with Danish director Susanne Bier choosing to employ swirling leaves to amplify the suspense. Remember who else decided to use rustling foliage to scare audiences? M. Night Shyamalan, in his apocalyptic thriller The Happening. I rest my case.