While it treads some familiar territory, Netflix's adaptation of the dystopian horror novel finds Sandra Bullock surviving against a supernatural foe she mustn't see.
The best (or perhaps worst, depending on how susceptible you are to nightmares) part of watching post-apocalyptic/dystopian movies is trying to figure out how you would manage in such an environment. How long would you survive? What skills do you have that would be useful if society were to collapse? Are you strong enough to keep going in a world where danger and death is at every turn? How long does it take to start a fire with two sticks anyway?
I’m comfortably certain that, should such a horrific event as the dead rising from the grave occur, my time as a survivor would be extremely limited. I’m not a fast runner, and I am a coward, so if the zombies don’t eat me, or Captain Trips doesn’t kill me, then starvation or falling down the side of a mountain while fleeing to safety will. I would certainly lack the steely resolve of Sandra Bullock in Bird Box, director Susanne Bier’s take on Josh Malerman’s novel about the aftermath of a world decimated by an unseen horror that doesn’t even have to touch its victims to destroy them. All they have to do is look at it.
The film opens with Bullock as Malorie, preparing her two small children, Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair), for a treacherous journey down a river. She is plainspoken to the point of harsh, threatening them with harm if they don’t obey her rules – listen to her at all times, and never, ever take off their blindfolds. Opening your eyes outdoors means certain death.
The film then flashbacks five years earlier to before the children were born, and we learn why they have no idea what outside looks like. A then-pregnant Malorie and her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson, cast in a role far too small and inconsequential for an actor with her presence) are concerned about reports of mass suicides overseas, an event that is spreading with alarming speed across the world. The cause is a sort of Eldritch horror that emotionally destroys you, then forces you to kill yourself, like Pennywise if he didn’t feel like getting his hands dirty.
After her sister is killed, Malorie flees to a safe house owned by Greg (B.D. Wong), where she joins kindly, courageous Tom (Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight), obnoxious alcoholic Douglas (John Malkovich), and a bunch of other people who don’t make much of an impression either way. Trapped inside and unable to do so much as take a peek out a window, they scrounge for food and count down the minutes to when Malorie and housemate Olympia’s (Danielle MacDonald, Patti Cake$) babies will be born, as rescue seems less and less likely.
If you’ve seen The Mist and The Walking Dead, you know how these things go – a group of survivors dwindles down to just a few, usually thanks to someone’s foolishness or cowardice, the real danger is from other humans, etc. Adapted for the screen by Eric Heisserer (Arrival), it trades in some of the aspects that made the novel feel fresh and exciting for some more familiar territory. Even without reading the novel, the direction a certain character goes in is heavily broadcast from the minute he appears, although it plays out differently, with the character getting so little screen time that the impact of the plot twist is lost. Also playing out differently is the relationship between Malorie and Tom, platonic in the book but decidedly less so in the movie. Their romance adds a perhaps superfluous dramatic element, but Rhodes is such a warm and likable presence that its inevitable ending packs an unexpected emotional punch (not to mention that it’s also extremely rare to see an older woman-younger man relationship in a mainstream action/horror movie, let alone one with a more than twenty-year age difference).
Bird Box doesn’t bring a whole lot new to the “survive at all costs” table, but when it does work, it works well. Beyond the scenes of panic in the streets as the mysterious, unseen (and wisely never shown) creatures wreak their havoc, there are some other effectively tense moments, such as when one of the housemates tries to determine if the creatures can be safely viewed on camera, or when Tom tries to drive a car with all the windows blacked out, navigating his way past abandoned vehicles and dead bodies. Much of the final third of the movie is devoted to the practicalities of long-term survival in a world where humans have all but gone extinct, and part of being practical for Malorie is raising her children without warmth and affection, without stories about what life was like before whatever it was that happened, without even giving them names.
They don’t need names, or to know what a mother is – all they need to know is that death is certain if they don’t follow the rules. We know, of course, that there is no survival without love and hope, and that eventually Malorie will remember that. But the journey to get there, while not terribly original, is just interesting enough to be worthwhile.