Scary movies are a unique, often visceral way for people to confront primal worries or insecurities. And while any film, even the bad ones, have some understanding of storytelling as a way of reflecting the human experience, no genre is better equipped to get under one’s skin and feel out a reaction quite like a horror. An inept horror film gets laughed at, or worse, are boring. While they borrow from real life, they have no sense of danger, no sense of reality. As cruel or bloody as a horror film might be, the best ones might be the most empathetic, on a basic, instinctual level.
Without question, I see Bird Box trying. Putting forth just above minimal effort? Sure, but the film is aiming for something. I see a film that wants to communicate something heartfelt and deeply human, about parenthood, about trust, about living with one’s demons. And as much as I don’t like talking about movies I dislike, Bird Box is so prodigiously incapable and meandering that the film has been weighing on me too greatly not to discuss. Because Netflix’s smash post-apocalyptic potboiler is so tragically clumsy, so thinly conceived, with brief glints of intrigue that can never pan out. Susanne Bier’s ungainly adaptation of Josh Malerman’s novel of the same name might have a smarter, genuinely riveting story somewhere, but much like the outside world for many of the characters in Bird Box, that better film is kept out of sight in favor of an inspired disaster.
Told in a series of flashbacks, Bird Box traces up from a point of time in the ostensible present to a post-apocalyptic desolation. Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is taking her two kids, referred to as Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair), up river, but not before warning them to wear the blindfolds she has given them, should they want to continue living. The family is to journey down river that Malorie believes will take them to a colony of surviving humans. But not even Malorie can take off her blindfold to row their way to their destination. Should they look, mysterious creatures will prompt anyone who sees them to kill themselves.
Before the fall of civilization, we meet Malorie as she’s pregnant. Reluctant about single motherhood–any father is, for all intents and purposes, completely absent–Malorie is chided by both her sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) and her obstetrician Dr. Lapham (Parminder Nagra) on her preparedness towards motherhood; Malorie is pretty clearly apprehensive about raising a kid, but we get two whole scenes of women in her life giving her vague platitudes about how she needs to approach being a parent. As this is happening, a phenomenon of mass suicide is spreading throughout the world, which eventually travels to the states, and people murder the heck out of themselves. This includes Jessica, whose death by getting run over by a huge truck–after getting both her and Malorie in a serious car wreck–is both violent and shocking–largely because Sarah Paulson is a welcome presence, and seeing her offed so early is somewhat of a waste.
Immediately, Malorie takes up with a small group of survivors, all of which amount to a crew of one-dimensional props for her journey. This includes cranky pants Douglas (John Malkovich, who is somehow unwatchable), Cheryl (Jacki Weaver), blank slate Lucy (Rosa Salazar), Greg (B.D. Wong), Charlie (Lil Rey Howery), eventual love interest Tom (Trevante Rhodes), and Felix (Machine Gun Kelly, which… what?). Eventually, they’re joined by the also pregnant Olympia (Danielle Macdonald), at which point the film begins killing off a cast of incredible actors once they outlive their usefulness, or who exist merely as eventual cannon fodder to create a stale sense of danger–obvious Trajan horse Gary (Tom Hollander) exacerbates the process by sending half the party to their demises. And yet, Lucy and Machine Gun Kelly get to steal a car, never to be confirmed dead, because the moral universe in this film is so profoundly warped. Moreover, whenever anyone dies a brutal, often graphic death, that impact never lands, because of how little the film cares about anyone.
The time spent in Douglas’s house is dedicated largely to boilerplate philosophy, be this ethical concerns, musings on misanthropy and trust, pending motherhood and whatnot. Bird Box tries very hard to be thoughtful, but very few of the ideas presented are any good, and none of the potentially worthwhile insights never go anywhere. What makes this even more excruciating is how poorly written this film is. Not only are these characters thin as bare thread, but the dialogue compounds this through awkward and lilting expression–what makes this even more infuriating is that writer Eric Heisserer’s work on Arrival is some of the most groundbreaking storytelling of the decade. When the film returns to the present, the scenes in the present seem to exist only to punctuate the empty stretches that precede them.
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block for Bird Box is in how the central threat of the film, the unseen monsters, are never really explained. Even their most basic conceit, that just looking at these creatures, will compel someone to commit suicide immediately, has exceptions. Other than Charlie offering a half-baked theory that the creatures may be mythic arbiters of the apocalypse, their presence is never explained. How they cause folks to kill themselves is also not really addressed–near the end, we see everyone stumbling around with their blindfolds on, as Malorie and the kids, lost from each other, hear the voices of loved ones, but that’s as far as their contact goes. Essentially, there are no concrete rules, which is a needless cheat.
Worst of all, the demons have no clear thematic purpose. One explanation is that they are an embodiment of each person’s individual fears and shame, which makes some sense, but is sort of like eating a bowl of rice with nothing else. Bird Box is function only, but the film fails at that, too. One would expect Malorie to have some sort of come-to-Jesus moment, and realize what being a mom is and what taking care of others means, since that is her entire arc, but other than not letting anyone look while they traverse rapids, the film doesn’t quite know how to resolve that thread, either. Susanne Bier pays lip service to grieving, to loneliness, to fanaticism, and a host of other thoughts, but does nothing meaningful with them. The movie gives up on the one half-developed insight two-thirds into the picture. In a lot of ways, Bird Box feels like one of the film’s own characters, just stumbling around, grasping for straws, but never getting anywhere.
As much as Bird Box wants to be any number of things, Bier and co. just can’t pull anything off. The character moments are weightless, because these characters are unknowns. The existential concerns interspersed throughout the film don’t mean anything, because they’re sophomoric time killers. The heart of the film is lost because the film is too shaggy and too lazy to earn any kind of emotional catharsis. Bird Box comes off as a cash-in riding the wave of A Quiet Place, which might explain the maddeningly slapdash quality of the production.
Ultimately, Bird Box is a spectacle of immense stupidity, that has the look and feel of a familiar or satisfying horror/suspense story without knowing why those beats work in other films as well as they do–in fact, the film often undercuts points of tension with miscalculated edits and poor photography. Bird Box isn’t even dumb fun; the film’s just dumb. Does anyone working on this film have a clue what they’re doing, and do they believe that viewers wouldn’t notice? There’s no doubt that Bird Box has good intentions, but good intentions does not a good movie make. But being as inarticulate and graceless as the movie is, and thinking so little of those watching, Bird Box is undoubtedly the worst film of 2018.
Rating – 1.0/10
One thought on “Bird Box (2018) – dir. Susanne Bier”
The complete lack of characterization is what got me. I can forgive a cheesy plot, half-explained premises, even the occasional cringe-worthy line so long as I can be convinced the characters matter. There’s not even a successful use of a archetypes or an attempt to subvert them. The characters were blatantly just vehicles for a mediocre moral message. Ugh.
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