That Sandra Bullock would be someone to turn to in a post-apocalyptic world shouldn’t be a surprise. Tough and resilient is just what she does, right? In Netflix’s survival horror Bird Box, Bullock’s character Malorie isn’t taking any shit. She can’t afford to. Right from the very beginning she’s informing two small children, Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair) to do as she says, no exceptions. To disobey her is to die, and to disobey her would be to remove their blindfolds. What’s out there that’s so terrible everyone must shield their eyes at all times? We never truly know, and that’s one of the most compelling and terrifying aspects of a film has thrills to spare, even if it borrows from a lot of familiar sources to make them happen.
Bird Box throws one mystery after another at you, with answers that are spooled out over the course of Malorie’s five-year-long story. First, why don’t the children with her have names? Second, what’s out there that has them so spooked? And third, where is the blindfolded Malorie taking them in that rickety old boat up a dangerous river? Flashing back in time we see a pregnant, slightly happier Malorie. She still isn’t so sure about wanting to keep the baby, despite what her upbeat sister (Sarah Paulson) has to say. The choice is basically taken out of Malorie’s hands when the world suddenly goes to shit. It starts with a wave of suicides in another country, then spreads to the U.S. The ensuing carnage looks like something out of 28 Days Later.
It doesn’t take long to figure out what’s happening. There are creatures out there that can force anyone who lays sight on them to commit suicide. A woman in a hospital, happy one moment, bashes her head against a window the next. People throw themselves out of windows, or in front of cars, and those who aren’t affected nearly trample one another to get away. Malorie is nearly stampeded herself, but manages to make her way into a nearby home, shared by a random group of strangers just as scared and confused as her. Well, except for John Malkovich’s character, a rifle-toting jerk with no time for all of these people invading his space.
The Mist is arguably my favorite Stephen King adaptation, and I love Dawn of the Dead. Put a motley crew of folks in a contained space while all Hell breaks loose outside and I’m a happy moviegoer. So Bird Box was checking off all the boxes for me at this point, with a pregnant Malorie holed up with a powder keg of divergent personalities. Jacki Weaver plays a helpful older lady, with Lil Rey Howery as a wannabe writer of apocalyptic novels, Danielle Macdonald (of Netflix’s recent comedy Dumplin’) is a sweet and naïve pregnant woman, with Rosa Salazar, Colson Baker (aka rapper Machine Gun Kelly), and BD Wong as others trapped inside. Pretty great cast for Bullock to be surrounded with, but the most impressive by far is Moonlight and The Predator breakout, Trevante Rhodes. As Tom, he bonds with Malorie right away and soon becomes the person she leans on most. Rhodes’ physicality is prominent, as always, but so is the sensitivity that made his performance in Moonlight such a showstopper. It’s a great role for him, and he works very well opposite Bullock.
Oscar and Emmy-winning director Susanne Bier (In A Better World, The Night Manager) ventures into genre territory for the first time and she does a solid job building up tension both inside the house and during Malorie’s treacherous trek along the river. A particularly good sequence involves the group venturing out into a darkened car to retrieve food, only to be assaulted by the creatures which we can barely make out in shadow, the car’s GPS and proximity alerts going haywire the whole time. While we never see the actual creatures, a damn smart move, when they are near it causes the winds to swirl with their power. Only birds seem to recognize when an attack is near. With the help of Trent Rezor’s ominous score, there are moments when Bird Box will have you gripping the edge of your seat, although I suspect some will get a little stir crazy at the overlong homebound portion. As the creatures’ power expands, more human threats emerge that I wish could have been explained in greater detail.
I’m not sure fracturing the narrative proved to be a storytelling strength for Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer, however. In most cases it’s done so that events from the past can add modern context but all it did for me was telegraph who wasn’t going to survive staying in that house. The two halves don’t make for a cohesive whole, even if Bird Box‘s individual parts scratch the itch for those looking for multiplex-worthy scares they can watch from the comfort of home.