In He Said/She Said, critics Joe and Valeska dissect a film in a back and forth email exchange. Previously, we adopted a crazy ersatz child in Jaume Collet-Serra’s 2009 Orphan. This time, we’re just trying to survive a less hilarious modern take on The Happening with Susanne Bier’s Bird Box (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 (Sandra Bullock) 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.”
Annnnnd we’re back! It’s been so long that I barely even remembered that the last one of these we did was Orphan!
Sooooo, Bird Box. This is a film adaptation of Josh Malerman’s well received 2015 horror/thriller novel. The screenplay hails from Eric Heisserer, who has a mixed track record (Arrival is great; Lights Out is mixed and The Thing remake…is not well regarded). Director Susanne Bier is an interesting choice since she hails from indie cinema (After The Wedding and Things We Lost In The Fire) and more recently, TV (AMC’s The Night Manager).
And the final significant component is the relatively star studded cast including Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, BD Wong, the girl from Dumplin’ and, in what amounts to little more than an extended cameo, Sarah Paulson, all of whom signed up….for a Netflix film.
I’ll start with this final piece first because I’m interested in exploring the current state of Netflix films. We’re basically at the tipping point where the online streamer is now releasing big budget films directly into people’s laps, though the quantity of the films seems to be outpacing the quality (Bright anyone?). If the films aren’t good, however, does the volume matter?
I don’t mean to suggest that Bird Box isn’t good. It’s fine. It’s a perfectly acceptable piece of entertainment along the lines of January’s The Cloverfield Paradox right before its climax dooms that film to hell. But, would paying customers venture out to the theatres to see what is essentially a serviceable, albeit unspectacular combination of Blindness, 28 Days Later and Shaymalan’s much derided “Mother Nature Fights Back” thriller The Happening? A: Probably not.
Bird Box takes a lot of star power and then traps it – often literally – in a single space environment. The majority of the film takes place in a single (admittedly large) house that occasionally acts as a fortress to repel outside threats and occasionally acts like a pressure cooker to keep the insiders juuuust on the right side of going insane. Not insane like the people who are actually insane and aren’t threatened by the unseen, suicidal virus that essentially wrecks the world and can only be detected by birds and the occasional breeze of leaves; the crazy that results from imposed house arrest and mild starvation.
What surprises me most, Valeska, is that this kind of property was strong enough to entice this many A – C list talent, mostly because it’s pretty standard thriller fare. The characters are all relatively thin, even Sandy B’s Malorie, who gets an arc that essentially boils down to “Intro to Survivalist Motherhood 101”. So, while I liked her chemistry with Trevante Rhodes and thought it was interesting to have Malkovich play a know-it-all-asshole-Conservative, I can’t really say that I was particularly invested in most of these people.
But perhaps I’ll leave it there for now. V, what did you think of Bird Box? Did any of the characters resonate with you? Any of the big setpieces set your heart aflutter? And I’m curious to read your thoughts on the success of the framing device (I can only assume it’s in the book, otherwise why spoil the fate of Every.Single.Character)?
It really has been a while! Granted, we’ve both been super busy with other (and some shared) projects, but it’s nice to get back in the saddle for a classic HS/SS adventure.
If only the adventure had been a little more compelling.
You’re right, Bird Box is an entirely serviceable film. But, when it comes to a film about mysterious eldritch horrors weaponizing l’appel du vide, I was hoping for something a little more satisfying. A little more frightening. A little more memorable. Particularly with the excellent cast it had to work with, as you mentioned.
Did any of the characters resonate with me? During the first few minutes of the film, I thought that Malorie and Jessica (Paulson) were a couple, which made me pretty happy (Alas, it wasn’t to be, though we did get a little queer content with BD Wong’s character).
I did, however, appreciate Malorie’s extreme ambivalence regarding motherhood throughout the majority of the film and her prickly independence. As someone who is fiercely and happily child-free, it’s nice to occasionally see women onscreen who aren’t chasing marriage and motherhood (And as someone who enjoys dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories, it’s nice when my representation and narrative preferences are combined).
We didn’t really get much of a chance to get to know the other housemates, did we? I was so stoked to see that Lil Rey Howery was part of the cast, but all we got from his character was an oddly specific exposition dump and a swift goodbye (Charlie, we hardly knew ye!) Danielle Macdonald was another welcome face and we did get to spend a little time with the sweet and naïve Olympia, but the film really comes down to Malorie, Tom (Rhodes), and Douglas (Malkovich). And, eventually, just Malorie herself (the child actors are competent enough, I suppose, but really added nothing to the film for me).
I did enjoy the interactions between Malorie and Douglas, particularly the piece in the kitchen when Malorie compared Douglas to her own verbally abusive and emotionally negligent father. I would have liked to have followed that thread a little further and fleshed out that relationship a bit more. I definitely wonder if the book explored that dynamic further (I’ll be buying it for my Kindle and trying to carve out the time to read it this spring).
Sadly, the most interesting relationships in the film are cut short by, well, DEATH, but we do get to cohabit with Malorie and Tom for a while. You’re right, they do have great chemistry, but we don’t spend enough time with their family unit to feel as invested as we could. Or maybe it’s the weakness of the writing.
As far as impressive setpieces, for me, the most memorable piece happened right up front: Jessica’s affliction and suicide. My status as a ride-or-die Sarah Paulson stan notwithstanding, her reaction to the sinister force and the look that she gave Malorie before shuffling loose the mortal coil were haunting. I also enjoyed the drive to the grocery store; I thought that the reliance solely on the GPS and the proximity notifications made for some pretty effective tension-building. I always enjoy when films incorporate technology in ways that have direct impact on the scare factor (see: the fan-cam in Paranormal Activity 3, the gun shots in Lights Out).
What do I think about the framing device? You’re definitely right about it deflating a lot of the tension about who makes it out of that house alive. I can’t speak to its use in the novel (yet), but I’m not sure that it was the best choice for the film. We weren’t given much to work with in terms of connecting with the characters to begin with—so telegraphing from the beginning that none of the others were going to make it out alive makes it even harder to gain a purchase in the story.
The Mirror is calling Bird Box “the most terrifying film that people have ever seen” — it feels as though this bar falls lower every season. Do you think that the rise in post-apocalyptic mainstream fare (for example: The Walking Dead, A Quiet Place) is driving audiences not traditionally interested in horror to check out films like Bird Box?
Good question. The Walking Dead has been on the air for so long at this point that I can’t to recall life without it <sigh>. The dramatic shift in the number of horror TV shows (Channel Zero, Black Mirror, American Horror Story, The Haunting of Hill House and even lighter fare like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), in addition to the invention of BS terms like “elevated” and “prestige” horror in discussions of A Quiet Place, Hereditary and Get Out reinforces the idea that horror has never been as relevant or permeated as many non-horror cultural corners as it has recently. 2018 truly is a good time to consume horror, even if you’re not a die-hard fan.
Bird Box seems genetically designed to appeal to “non-horror” folks in that it’s not actually very scary, but it has the prestige and the easy Netflix accessibility to reach saturation levels. I can’t overstate how savvy Netflix’s release strategy is; releasing a low-key thriller (because if we’re going to categorize, that’s what Bird Box is) a few days before the holidays when audiences have a ton of free time on their hand makes a great deal of sense.
As for The Mirror’s assertion? Well…it sounds like someone needs to watch a few more scary movies.
I’ll agree with you that the opening is dynamite. I, too, was psyched to see Paulson and the banter between the sisters felt authentic and incredibly believable. Unfortunately as soon as it became evident that the airborne illness was in its infancy, I knew Jessica was a goner. Thankfully this did nothing to lessen the impact of that manic drive or Paulson’s haunting final lines as her eyes burned over, but it did suck juuuuust a little to lose an actress of her calibre in exchange for a bunch of half-formed caricatures who might as well all have been wearing red shirts.
Again, I agree with you about the grocery store run, which, aside from the “harrowing” trip down the river (please picture me making dismissive air quotes), is the film’s other highlight. I’m not as familiar with Howery, so his death didn’t impact me much; in fact I’ll confess that his particular death was actually one of the least effective because it was far too telegraphed. The minute that he acknowledged he knew the (unseen) individual on the other side of the loading dock door, he became little more than a walking casualty.
And therein lies one of my two main gripes of the film: 1) the deaths are sooooooo predictable. Perhaps it’s not meant to be as big of a deal because we don’t really know much about these thinly sketched characters, but I found it incredibly annoying how easy it was to identify who would bite it next.
This is especially egregious when Olympia allows Gary (Tom Hollander) in the house. It would have been better if a timer had appeared in the corner of the screen and begun to count down to his betrayal. At least then Heisserer could have acknowledged how cliche-ridden his screenplay is. Was the resulting carnage candy – including poor Olympia’s jump out the window and Cheryl’s (a criminally underused Jacki Weaver) self-inflicted neck stab – “enjoyable” to watch from a gore-hound’s perspective? Sure…but that doesn’t make up for the fact that it had been forecast twenty minutes earlier.
Which brings me to my second complaint: part of the reason that Bird Box doesn’t land is because we’ve seen it all before! I mentioned a few projects up top, but your mention of the grocery run reminded me that it’s very similar to the far superior The Mist. Throw in Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, which also informs that great opening scene and ends with a desperate ride by boat to safety. Obviously I’m not so obtuse that I believe every horror film has to be wholly original or won’t crib from other films, but the more I consider it, the more Bird Box seems cobbled together by setpieces and narratives from other, stronger properties.
Valeska, do you think that the film will work better with non-horror folks who aren’t constantly comparing it to better films? How did you feel about the ending, which includes a reappearance by Dr. Lapham (Parminder Nagra) to confirm the film’s principle thesis that Malorie’s most important journey was the one to become a real mother <barf>? And what else, if anything, truly worked for you?
I’ll confess that Greg (Wong)’s death, despite being completely predictable, was over so quick that it was jarring. I’ll also cop to the fact that Felix (Machine Gun Kelly) and Lucy (Rosa Salazar) absconding with the car and never being heard from again surprised me. I fully expected the narrative to punish them by revealing their deaths later on. But that’s not really saying much, is it?
My god, I didn’t even notice Dr. Lapham! That’s ridiculous and I’m retroactively annoyed.
Yes, Joe, I do think that this film will play very well among the non-horror folk, and has thus far done so. And, again, it’s not a terrible film. It’s a film that drops some interesting threads in favour of a more predictable and less compelling narrative, to be sure, but it does offer some low-level thrills, recognizable faces, and a happy(-ish) ending, which fulfills the criteria for “elevated” (*full-body shudder*) horror. It’s an entry-level horror film that I would recommend to acquaintances who are feeling a little adventurous but don’t want to feel too challenged.
I will say that the film made me very interested in reading the source material, which is a type of success in itself. I’d be surprised if the book wasn’t seeing a big bump in Kindle and print sales over the holidays. Georgia from My Favorite Murder speaks very favourably of the novel, so I’d recommend readers who were less than impressed by the film check out the novel as well; perhaps we can set up a HS/SS book club with the countless hours of free time we have!
I’ll give Bird Box a solid 6 out of 10, based primarily on the outstanding sequences and moments that we mentioned earlier. I wish it had been an 8, as I loved the Lovecraftian premise and the cast, but an excellent Sandra Bullock horror romp didn’t make it under the tree this holiday season. What’s your rating, Joe?
Yeah, I’m feeling a little more Scrooge-y, so I’m probably closer to a 5. Bird Box simply didn’t hold my interest, so it’s halfway there for me.
That’s our take, readers, but what say you? Did you enjoy the film? What worked best (or worst) for you? And if you’ve read the book, how does the adaptation compare? Sound off below!