During New Year’s Eve I had some friends over who berated me for dismissing one particular movie—Bird Box—out of hand. Rightly so. All movies deserve a chance. But after seeing more than the normal share of memes and retweets, I grew skeptical and contrarian. I cynically assumed the movie was the product of The Algorithm, designed and churned out by The Netflix Machine for maximum meme-ability and profit (and even more cynically, I assumed the memes had been bought and paid for and propagated by some mysterious group of meme machines).
After a few drinks one of my friends challenged me, with money, to actually watch the movie and record my thoughts on it. I typically refrain from writing movie reviews because, to put it simply, the last thing the Internet needs is a straight white man spewing his opinions about movies into the ether. There’s not much I could say, in my opinion, that would truly add to The Discourse, so I usually don’t say anything at all. Just this once I’m obligated.
For a quick seat-of-the-pants summary of my thoughts, you can see my Letterboxd review here. For an even quicker review, I would say Bird Box is a perfectly fine movie, decent for streaming on a quiet Friday night, but don’t expect to it to leave any lasting trace.
“I don’t think you can make it with kids.”
Malorie is an expectant mother and artist who is afraid to leave her studio apartment. She lives inside, paints, and frets about being unable to connect with her unborn child. Her sister, Jessica, buys groceries for her.
A supernatural plague of suicides sweeps through the world. At first it’s only a distant threat. Then, on the way home from the doctor’s office, it arrives and takes Jessica. Stranded and hurt and alone, Malorie finds safety with a group of strangers in a beautiful home more than big enough for everyone gathered. Here, they puzzle together their situation, never sure if what’s outside the house is more unpleasant than what’s inside.
All of the above is told via extended flashback. Interspersed throughout the survival-with-strangers story (à la The Mist) are vignettes of the Present Day, where Malorie and two five-year-olds traverse the wilderness, blindfolded, searching for some mythical safe haven. We hear a vague radio conversation, warnings of river rapids—the man on the radio is especially concerned that children won’t make the journey—and Malorie, shouting instructions at the children. “Under no circumstance are you allowed to take off your blindfold. If I find that you have, I will hurt you.” The children have only blank stares for response.
Then they set out down the river toward salvation.
“The loneliness is just incidental.”
This movie feels to me like a very good first draft. It has many great qualities, but too much untrimmed fat, and too many questions unanswered.
I don’t mean questions in the sense of, “where are the beasts from? what about such and such gotcha solution I just thought of?” Because, like most horror / post-apocalyptic movies, this isn’t about the suicide-beasts or the crazy situations. It’s about Malorie, what she wants, and what she needs.
After we’re given the newscasts-as-exposition treatment, we’re given the this-argument-is-for-our-audience-as-exposition treatment. Jessica tells Malorie what she already knows: you’re afraid of connecting with your unborn baby, you’re afraid of leaving the safe haven of your apartment, you’re pouring yourself into your work to deal with the father leaving you.
And then, her plot-purpose served, Jessica is taken by the suicide-beasts and kills herself, never to be mentioned or thought of again.
This is a movie that feels like everything has to be telegraphed to the viewer at least twice over. First Jessica and Malorie argue about her condition. Then the doctor rehashes the conversation with them both. And then, all things established, we move on.
The pattern repeats itself throughout the movie in the flash-forward scenes. Each time we flash-forward, a new rule is established regarding the beasts (and, we soon learn, its followers). Then we go to the flashback and get to see everyone trying to figure out what the hell is going on, even though we, as the viewer, have already learned what is happening.
It’s a great way to make sure the audience knows the rules of the world and its characters. It’s also a great way to rob just about every scene in the movie of its tension.
And for all the time spent setting up Malorie’s character, we don’t really see her struggle meaningfully until the very end of the movie.
“Don’t take my children.”
There are plenty of situations that could have stemmed from Malorie’s own internal conflicts. In fact, the movie serves up quite a few, but never takes advantage of them fully, such as the trip to the grocery store. What a perfect set up: Jessica, earlier, speaking of always being the one to go get the groceries, and then later Malorie, surrounded by strangers, venturing out into the world to do that same thing. Except this isn’t shown as something Malorie even thinks twice about. She instantly volunteers. So what was it that made her afraid to leave her house in the normal world, but makes her jump at the chance to do it when it could literally kill her? Is it the house full of other people? Maybe. But, like the rest of the character motivations here, it’s unclear.
This is partially why the two scenes that should have been the most intense feel mostly laborious.
All it took for Malorie to decide that no one was going to watch as they careened down the river was to stare into Girl’s eyes. We’re given no workup to this, no clues as to why her heart suddenly changed—just minutes ago, we watched her all but volunteer Girl to be the watcher. In real time, this was only a few hours of floating ago. And none of the flashbacks in between provide clues as to her change of heart. So Malorie says no one is going to be the watcher and we’re supposed to feel… something, then tense as the meet the rapids. But even from a technical standpoint it all falls flat. The strange choice to go from Malorie’s behind-the-blindfold point of view to a third-person omniscient view stationed above, or in the trees, pulls you out of the situation and makes you feel like a spectator and not a participant. You understand intellectually that this situation is really crazy, but you’re divorced from the feelings you’re supposed to feel.
Similarly, Malorie’s epiphany that she does love these children, and that they are her children, feels off-key. The revelation comes when they’re almost to the sanctuary and Malorie has fallen down an embankment and lost the kids. The beasts are all around. Their seductive voices plead with Girl and Boy: look at me. Look at me. Malorie finally realizes how fleeting her time with these kids is, how close she is to losing them, and she drops to her knees and shouts out a heartfelt monologue in the hopes that Girl hears her, learns that she loves them both, and doesn’t listen to the voices. Like before, the camera keeps us distant from all of this. A medium shot of Maloria, clutching Boy, and a close-up of the blank expression on Girl’s face. Strange cuts to close-ups behind Malorie’s shoulder, then changing the angles on the close-ups on Girl. What is the purpose of all these cuts? To keep their coverage from going to waste, or to try and raise the tension in the monologue? It felt rushed. It fell flat. None of the elements formed a cohesive whole.
“She’s scared of you.”
I’ve been very harsh on this movie, maybe unfairly so. I think this comes from frustration. Not because I disliked the movie, but because I feel like it could have been better. It tries to do so much, but its reach exceeds its grasp.
A lot of the flaws in the narrative aren’t unique to the movie. It gets its DNA from the book, written by Josh Malerman then adapted to the screen by Eric Heisserer. Eric Heisserer reportedly began writing the screenplay before Josh Malerman finished writing the book, and they would bounce ideas for the story off each other. I think this ended up being unfortunate. Staying too close to the book ended up hurting the movie.
There are a lot of things the movie sets up in its first ten or fifteen minutes. Some of them are revisited, a lot of them are abandoned, and most of them are not given the screentime they deserve.
One of these, the one I’ve been thinking about since the movie ended, which was vaguely alluded to by Jessica and revisited several times, is Malorie’s “interesting” childhood. Throughout several different conversations, she mentions growing up with a father who was “fluent in asshole” and how he used the world as “just an excuse to treat his family like shit.”
Then, later in the movie at a pivotal moment, Boy confides to Malorie: “She’s scared of you.”
Malorie has unwittingly passed down the traumas given to her by her father. Despite her fears, manifested in the character flaws enumerated by Jessica, she lost. The world got to her, and now her own children are afraid of her.