The wind blows, leaves swirl menacingly whilst people start committing suicide in ever increasing numbers and we, the audience, are struck by a stomach-churning realisation of terror as we wonder — are we watching a remake of M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Happening’ (2008)?! Please god, no!
This is both one of Susanne Bier’s ‘Bird Box’s (2018) biggest weakness but also one of its main strengths: it seems to draw inspiration from many sources, some it transcends (in the case of ‘The Happening’ how could it not?) yet pales in inevitable comparison to others. But first, what’s the film about?
Sandra Bullock plays Malorie whom we first encounter talking directly to camera warning us about the film’s plot and set-up. It seems Earth has been invaded/infected by aliens/beings that are so horrifying/dazzling that the very sight of them compels anyone who glimpses them to kill themselves. Scary, although not as scary as realising she’s talking to two young children who should already know all this and we’ve just been hit by a clunky exposition dump so hard it could leave a bruise. Ouch!
From there the film jumps back in time 6 years where Bullock, heavily pregnant in a pre-monster world (get it?!), is visiting hospital as reports of sporadic social unrest unfold on TV screens and once the calamity hits it is down to her and a group of survivors to, well, survive and the only way to do this is to wear blindfolds and cover all windows. Its terrain so familiar that the audience could easily traverse it blindfolded ourselves. There are no great surprises here.
What it does contain are some parallels to the fear of pregnancy such as in ‘Alien’ (1979) and moments when ‘Bird Box’ feels like it’s heading in the direction of Frank Darabont’s far superior ‘The Mist’ (2007), yet these characters here never engage in much conflict between themselves. So there’s never any point where ‘Bird Box’ really ventures into the pressure-cooker, people tearing themselves apart from fear that we feel we’re being led into. Instead moments are undercut by flashing forward to Bullock in the boat and back again. This means the film loses some steam when it should be building it as we already know what’s coming. Because of this there is the constant atmosphere not so much of pure horror but pounding frustration and it’s not from the lack of creatures featuring but more the fact that scenarios and characters are set up only to be either dispensed with or just jettisoned and left behind for almost no reason whatsoever.
The most interesting dynamic in the film is not between Bullock and any of the adults but with the young girl in the boat. It’s interesting, and pretty scary, to see a young child gradually realise that because of who she is (or possibly not) could be the reason that Bullock, her surrogate mother, might actually find her life expendable. It’s the most genuinely chilling moment in the film.
Unfortunately this is followed by one of the most unintentionally funny scenes in the film — a double labour and birth scene and we suddenly feel the film creaking again. John Malkovich also has a truly heavy-handed Trump joke and there’s a brief section about Iraq with both feeling crowed-barred in simply to give the movie a possible satirical and political edge (it hasn’t got one at all incidentally). For a movie going for a stripped back approach it’s amazing how many unnecessary angles it throws in and there’s also something about isolationism going on here but that also gets lost in the mix.
Fortunately it is by any means not all bad. It’s always great seeing Sandra Bullock lead a film and she’s her usual great self here. John Malkovich is fun if a little disappointingly restrained, yet it is Tom Holland who possibly steals the show with a creepy performance even if, unlike the creatures, you can see what he is coming a mile off.
The sound design and music are also particularly good — this definitely could have worked better on radio but where’s the money in that?! There’s a great sequence when they have to drive with the car windows blacked-out and using only the sat-nav to navigate the roads. We don’t see anything, only the sounds of possible monsters outside and the crushing of the skulls of the dead bodies littering the roads they are driving over. It’s grisly, gruesome and not without a nice veneer of dark humour. It’s moments like this that keep the film engaging. The camera-work, directing, acting, sound design and score especially are all top-notch demonstrating that the something that is lacking is emanating from the script, plot construction and characters. Bier also handles the societal break-down at the start very deftly and really giving the sense of everything going to hell.
In closing, and at the risk of making a crass joke, the ending is literally blindingly obvious and raises the question of — “Why wasn’t this touched on earlier?” It’s a very convenient denouement and a little pat. It also doesn’t reveal various aspects regarding the relationship between Bullock and the two children till the very end simply so they can be brought up at the close of the movie for some feels making it all somewhat preposterous and manipulative. But hey, it’s is a movie after all.
‘Bird Box’ is not a great film, feeling too much of a patchwork of various other ideas and stories, yet at times, it is better than a number of the films it could be compared to. It’s not a total success but there’s enough going on here to entertain and creep you out. Just don’t go looking for too much depth or originality as, like the monsters, you won’t see any here.
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