BIRD BOX (NETFLIX) (2018)
SYNOPSIS: When a mysterious force decimates the world’s population, only one thing is certain: if you see it, you take your life. Facing the unknown, Malorie finds love, hope and a new beginning only for it to unravel. Now she must flee with her two children down a treacherous river to the one place left that may offer sanctuary. But to survive, they'll have to undertake the perilous two-day journey blindfolded.
Coming after this spring’s ‘A Quiet Place’, you probably can’t help drawing comparisons between ‘Bird Box’ and its predecessor. Whereas it was sound which drew the aliens in the former, it is sight that does so in the latter, through which the malevolent creatures, that the film reveals little of, control your mind and make you want to kill yourself. Hence, as Sandra Bullock’s single mother Malorie tells the two five-year-olds under her charge at the start of the film, they must never remove their blindfolds if they wish to survive.
Malorie’s speech comes against the backdrop of her daring attempt to undertake a two-day journey by boat to join the inhabitants of a safe haven somewhere in the woods, and that nail-biting expedition set in present day anchors one of two strands of the narrative. The other takes place five years before when she was pregnant, and shows how she managed to survive at the point when the invasion first began. In fact, more of the movie is set in the past, which sees her seeking shelter with a ragtag group of nine other survivors at a large craftsman style house.
As scripted by ‘Arrival’ scribe Eric Heisserer from the 2014 novel of the same name, the film keeps a tight focus on its lead protagonist Malorie, who goes from cynical to despairing to hopeful as she navigates the post-apocalyptic landscape – i.e. she starts off deeply ambivalent about the baby she’s carrying, turns increasingly pessimistic as those around her fall victim to the epidemic, and finally comes to realise just how important it is to remain hopeful despite the circumstances. It’s no small feat managing such a character transition, but Bullock reminds us how she is a genuine movie star who knows how to act and command the screen.
Bullock’s isn’t the only one worth watching; in fact, she is complemented here by several strong supporting acts – including ‘Moonlight’s’ Trevante Rhodes as the former Iraq vet Tom whom Malorie develops a romantic connection with; ‘Patti Cake$’s’ Danielle Macdonald as the timid Olympia who happens to be as pregnant as Malorie; and John Malkovich as the twice-divorced, now recently-widowed Douglas who is as selfish as he is sarcastic. Unlike Malorie however, not all of their characters and/or their interactions are as sharply defined as they should be, so it helps that the ensemble is made up of such uniformly strong and distinctive performances.
Yet it isn’t just Heisserer’s writing which leaves you underwhelmed, but the overall execution by Danish director Susanne Bier. We can count the two set-pieces that truly pop: one, when Malorie first witnesses people around her committing suicide; and two, when a group from the house goes out driving blind to the supermarket for supplies in their blacked-out car. The rest however are perplexingly less well-staged, including an encounter at the supermarket where we see how these invading supernatural entities are able to bend us to their will, that where a late arrival to the house finally confirms our suspicions to possess a much more sinister agenda, and even the climactic scene where Malorie and the two kids come face to face with the entities in the woods while searching for the entrance to the safe-house compound.
And that is truly a pity, because we can see much potential in the premise for a gripping, even white-knuckle, two-hour viewing experience. Yet Bier not only lets the pace go slack at certain points in the movie, she also fails to exploit the elements within fully. We’d have thought that the titular winged creatures, who possess the extra-sensory ability to detect these aliens before they arrive, would have been put to much more effective use. Ditto some of the finer points which are unfortunately glossed over, such as how the insane seem all too willing to serve these entities, or how there are others being exploited by these entities to draw others in like moths to a flame. We can’t help but wonder how the film would have been in the hands of a horror specialist, but we’re quite sure there is room for a lot more suspense.
There has been much hype around ‘Bird Box’ since it was released, what with the memes going around and the #BirdBoxChallenge, so much so that there are two diametric camps of lovers and haters competing to drown each other’s voices out on social media. As is often the case with such reactions, the truth is really somewhere in between: ‘Bird Box’ is certainly not terrible or trash, but neither is it anywhere as effective a horror thriller as ‘A Quiet Place’. Really, the blame for that lies with Bier, who fails to fully wring the tension out of some well-conceived scenarios that even a reader to Josh Malerman’s book can appreciate. Still, it’s solid if not spectacular genre material that will more than make your night if you find yourself in need of a horror fix, and besides, Bullock is always never less than a joy to watch.
Review by Gabriel Chong