Bird Box Wasn’t Written by an Algorithm — But It Sure Feels Like It Was
You don’t appreciate the art of a good genre contrivance until you see one pulled off poorly. There is so much “stuff” thrown at us in the opening minutes of Bird Box — someone on a radio talking about a safe-house compound, two nameless children in blindfolds, and yes, those titular birds in that titular box — that one feels instantly alienated by the sheer force of the effect on display. All fiction asks us to care about invented events and stakes, but sometimes a film never manages to puff itself up into something bigger than the sum of its parts, like a meringue in a greasy bowl. And the more serious and downbeat and gray the proceedings, the further the mind wanders.
Bird Box, like several other popular Netflix titles, feels like a film written by algorithm, but it is in fact based on a 2014 novel by Josh Malerman, the kind of book that gets optioned a year before its release date. It’s set around a mysterious apocalyptic event wherein if one opens one’s eyes outside — or “looks,” as becomes the shorthand — one is driven to a suicidal berserker state. It’s A Quiet Place with sight, basically, and just as many vaguely metaphorical pseudo-deep ideas about motherhood and pregnancy. Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is a single mom-to-be when the Problem comes to her town, though she’s in willful denial of the fact that at some point she will give birth and have to care for whatever is growing inside her. She refuses to learn the gender of her baby and alludes to heavy drinking in the presence of her prenatal physician. She prefers to be by herself, and what are the odds the end times are going to teach her a thing or two about that?
Then chaos hits — her sister (Sarah Paulson) dies, and she is taken in at a large craftsman style house owned by Greg (BD Wong) and also inhabited by a crew of escapees played by John Malkovich (woefully miscast in a role that feels written for a shotgun-toting Clint Eastwood), Lil Rel Howery, Rosa Salazar, Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, and Machine Gun Kelly. Aside from the bizarre frisson of seeing these disparate names fight among each other about how to handle the end times, the situation feels immensely familiar, because it is. Some people don’t want to let in any more stragglers from the outside. Some people put faith in the military to sort the whole thing out. Some people just want to bone. Directed with dour respectable plodding by Susanne Bier, you know immediately how this all plays out; there’s just a different boogeyman this time around. There’s a tense sequence when a group from the house goes out in their blacked-out car, driving blindly through the wasteland of the city in search of supplies, and relying on the car’s motion sensor to tell them when they’re about to hit something/run over a rotting corpse. But it ultimately feels more like a cool idea someone was proud of themselves for coming up with than a scene with human stakes and tension.
Danielle Macdonald eventually shows up at the house as another expectant mom; that we are flipping back and forth from the blindfolded Malorie ferrying two children to safety five years after the initial event should tip you off as to Macdonald’s character’s fate. Motherhood is the ultimate MacGuffin of Bird Box, imbued with all the special redeeming powers that male writers tend to imbue it with. Childbirth is an action set piece that can be deployed in sync with thematic moments (I love you Alfonso Cuarón, but you’re guilty too), and only once a woman finds her maternal drive can she finally save herself.
Whatever countering/informing influence Bier could have had on the story is drowned out by the hoariness of both Malerman’s original story and Eric Heisserer’s adaptation. The latter is especially disappointing, as Heisserer did such sensitive work with not-dissimilar themes in 2016’s Arrival, but I suspect he had a deeper well to draw from with the source material there. Even Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score (Okay, Netflix, calm down, we believe you, you are very hip and rich) feels like it’s going through the motions.
Perhaps Bird Box will work for someone less burnt out on the contemporary glut of post-apocalyptic survival narratives; after all it more or less does what it says it’s going to do on the box (no pun intended.) But I care as much about the people who ran around in its fiction now as I did before I watched them for two hours, which is to say, not at all. Maybe the sad fact is that that’s the case with most movies, but it’s awfully rude of Bird Box to make it so obvious.