Lil Rel Howery
Machine Gun Kelly
2 Hrs., 4 Mins.
Bird Box December 27, 2018
n Bird Box (2018), a post-apocalyptic survival thriller from the Danish director Susanne Bier, dystopia, as is usually the case, becomes reality quickly and without much of a warning. In an early scene, a pregnant painter named Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is half-watching a news program with her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson), and the topic of the hour is centered on mass suicides that have, for the last few days, been wreaking havoc on
Russia. The recurring incident seems endemic. But the news does not much ruffle the sisters’ feathers: As long as this large-scale tragedy is taking place in the abstract “over there,” there isn’t much of a need to worry.
An hour or so afterward, though, both are biting their tongues. Soon, the streets suggest that either Captain America and a greased-up villain are fighting somewhere in the area, or that whatever was happening in Russia in that telecast is now in America. The latter situation, unfortunately, turns out to be the correct one. The suicides, however, are not the fault of a virus but an entity, which is either extraterrestrial or man-made. (The film doesn't specify.) In short, if you make eye contact with this thing — even though it is, for all intents and purposes, invisible — you are irreversibly inspired to violently kill yourself. Jessica will soon join the majority; Malorie, through sheer luck, will finagle her way into an upmarket two-story on the edges of her city’s main street, and build camaraderie with other survivors who have snuck into the home, too.
Bird Box, adapted for the screen by Eric Heisserer, who wrote Arrival (2016), from a 2014 novel by Josh Malerman, waffles between two timelines. One is set during the earliest stages of the global disaster; the other takes place five years down the road, and finds Malorie with two children — whom she clinically refers to as “Girl” and “Boy” (Vivien Lyra Blair and Julian Edwards) — traveling down a river in a ramshackle canoe, with blindfolds on. Their destination is a purported quasi-Shangri-La that has been brought to Malorie’s attention via a radio message.
Neither plot is sound. In the first timeline, Malorie attempts to survive, and make nice, with a horde of stragglers, which includes civilians played by John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, Trevante Rhodes, Danielle Macdonald, and others. No one in the makeshift band proves themselves much else besides a stock time bomb: Malkovich is the patronizing wretch whose temper might cost him; Weaver is the uptight maternal figure who has to adjust to unheard-of powerlessness; Rhodes is the sincere lionheart whom we know will become Malorie’s love interest from the get-go; Macdonald (who, like Bullock, plays a pregnant woman) is the demure young woman whose sweetness will eventually come at a price.
Thrilling endeavors, which dependably result in at least one death, include a trip to a nearby grocery store (which entails some members of the bloc drive over with the windows painted over in black Behr, a GPS their only guide) and a late-in-the-game dealing with an intruder, which happens to coincide with synchronized births on Bullock and Macdonald’s parts. But the dramas of this storyline are stippled with nagging questions. How is the water still running? How is the electricity still on? When the group journeys to the market, each person fills a cart. How did this band manage to fit their findings in their shared vehicle, which already cannot comfortably accommodate its passengers?
The river-based storyline vibrates with implausibility, too. There is, first of all, the fact that the characters are moving downriver for days on end, rarely stopping. But there is also the unabating truth that they are all wearing blindfolds the entire time, usually nestled under a carefully mounted blanket, and largely absconding the use of paddles. How does the boat not constantly crash into boulders and fallen trees over the course of the multi-day period? Do Malorie and her traveling companions ever stop to use the bathroom or stretch their legs, or are dockings limited to emergency situations?
Bird Box feels true in spurts. The first few scenes, during which Malorie and Jessica are hanging out, are veritably funny; their rapport feels about as lived-in as possible in a movie that doesn’t develop either of them. (Perhaps it is unimportant that Jessica, who dies so early on, feel stereoscopic, but I was bothered by how little we really know about our heroine. We know that Malorie is cynical, and that she had reservations, in the first place, about having a child, but not much else.) The moment when everything goes from mundane to terrifying is excellently unsettling: Our first glimpse of the impending doom comes from a visual of a woman repeatedly banging her head into a window until her head resembles a blackberry cobbler, and the image haunts. Ensuing scenes of chaos, with their prevalent explosions, crashes, and violent suicides, are genuinely bewildering and scary.
But Bird Box’s plot holes and carping questions ensure a labeling of superficiality. And while the film seems to further aspire to be categorized alongside movies in which motherhood is a forbidding responsibility, à la the occult-centric forays Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Hereditary (2018), even this aim is deficiently developed.
Ever-nettlesome, too, is the exact nature of the entity. We never find out its origins (though I think, since people with debilitating mental illnesses are able to withstand its evils, that is was perhaps unleashed by a lab), and it is unclear if there is one or many. The being, after all, can appear at any time and any place, with whip-like timing. The force is invisible, but leaves are always picked up, and then strewn about as if a blower were turned on, full blast, whenever it’s in the area. Yet, it is intimated that this is also a ruse. One character, who allegedly came into near-lethal contact with the entity at one point but did not feel the need to kill themselves as other victims did, draws the beast, with angsty-teen equanimity, in sketchbooks. Is invisibility, then, merely a superpower? The life form cannot come indoors, either. But why? Is it required that it be invited inside, as if it were one of the blood-suckers stalking front yards in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)? I additionally wondered how it was able to know the whereabouts of anyone who doesn’t have their eyes covered. Is a naked pupil’s relationship to the entity similar to the connection between a drop of blood and a miles-away shark?
When characters travel outside, they wear blindfolds to prevent themselves from suffering the consequences of eye contact. But when the film’s cinematographer, Salvatore Totino, attempts to mimic the first-person experience by placing a rag over his lens, it is proven that the characters can, in fact, see decently well when their irises are masked. But if they are able to discern anything at all, doesn’t that mean that the beast could still provoke a fatal staring contest?
In the horror genre, ambiguity can be advantageous. There is a caveat, though. When a director employs ambiguity, it must only be visual. And if a screenwriter decides that the attribute must be embedded in the storyline, it can only work effectively with the conclusion. The ambiguity of Bird Box, however, neither only concerns its visuals nor its ending. Ambiguity, instead, is everywhere and obviously unintentional — the fault of a flimsy screenplay that cares little about logic. Some reviewers have dubbed the movie reductive of this year’s A Quiet Place. But this is erroneous and offensive, both because Bird Box is based on a years-old book — which could alternately make A Quiet Place an imitation of Bird Box — and because A Quiet Place, though overrated, is competent and sophisticated. Bird Box, in contrast, is an entertaining miscalculation. It might be better to look away. C