Movie Review | Bird Box
Movie summary: Five years after an ominous unseen presence drives most of society to suicide, a mother and her two children make a desperate bid to reach safety. (IMDb)
Going into Bird Box, I knew it had got a pretty mixed reception when first released on Netflix and, having now watched it, I can see exactly why. I really like the premise of this movie, with unseen entities causing the end of human society as we know it, and I really like how the majority of characters don't make the usual horror movie 'mistakes', but it never quite comes together.
Let's start with whatever the beings are that cause people to commit suicide upon seeing them, or turning the insane into almost religious zealots who try and force others to look at whatever these things are. Obviously, invisible enemies means avoiding expensive CGI or having to worry about a design that might turn out silly, which works in the movie's favour.
It's an approach that worked with Jaws, Alien, Predator and other movies where keeping the killing machines off-screen only made them more deadly or terrifying. The thing is, we do get to see all of them eventually, whereas the closest we get in Bird Box is one character's sketches, appearing to suggest that these entities seem to have no 'base' form.
To be fair, it's an approach that works the majority of the time, but there are a few moments where characters are quite safe by the movie's established 'rules' and the threat level drops because there's nothing on-screen to react to. I'm not saying that the creatures should've been fully depicted, but there are so many close-ups on eyes that vague figures being reflected, or even some kind of form passing through dust would've just added a little more by giving these things some kind of physical presence.
As it is, Bird Box relies on depicting people killing themselves in various ways as the main source of horror. Some of these are very effective and creative - such as a woman who apparently sees an image of her dead mother and climbs into a burning car, sitting in the flames before the vehicle explodes - but a number feel quite mundane.
Fortunately for these beings, they get help in the form of the insane, who love their undefined appearances so much that they try and force others to look at them, killing the sane if they refuse. It's a fairly neat twist - although again not a great depiction of those suffering from mental health issues in a movie - but feels like a result of what is Bird Box's biggest issue.
The movie seems to go out of its way to avoid falling into typical horror movie tropes, such as people doing something stupid to keep the plot going - this is great. Most of the people in this movie come across as very intelligent as a result, making them likeable because you're never rolling your eyes at some form of idiocy that pulls you out of the movie.
Sounds great, right? Not a problem at all? Unfortunately, it does mean certain moments that move the plot forward feel contrived and forced, with the story needing certain things to happen and the characters being too smart to do the stupid thing needed. It does occasionally feel like the guys in the underground base in Cabin in the Woods are trying to steer events where needed.
We have a group of characters who don't exactly get along, which is fine as that allows for some interesting interactions, and then we learn about the insane wanting to make people see these creatures. Then we meet another character who has the same goal despite apparently being entirely sane, followed by a group of more people driving around to try for the same end result.
If anything, Bird Box felt like almost like a video game at times, with new enemies being introduced to make things harder for the main characters because they'd learned how to deal with the threat that caused the collapse of civilisation. Or, to put it another way, problems were forced on the protagonists because they needed to be, not because of the characters' actions.
In a more action-oriented movie, I think this approach would've worked, but we spend so much time focused especially on Sandra Bullock's Malorie and Trevante Rhodes' Tom that events should've been a result of their behaviour, not a random outside force artificially increasing the difficulty of their survival.
Now, I'm aware that Bird Box is actually an adaptation of a novel, so this may simply be a problem carried over from the source material. It doesn't change the fact that the end product we see suffers from a set story needing to be told in a specific manner rather than unfolding naturally.
It's a shame, because a lot of the character work is really good, with Bullock especially great in the leading role. I was a little thrown at the start as I thought Sarah Paulson's Jessica was her girlfriend rather than what turns out to be her sister, but Bullock plays the role of a woman forced into the role of an over-protective mother very well.
There were moments when Malorie seemed to be especially harsh with the children, Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair), but not only was the script good enough to give her rational enough reasons for being this way, Bullock convinces you that Malorie utterly believes it's the right thing to do to protect the kids.
It's easy to see how Malorie survived the fall of society, proving smart and resourceful, while also showing that she's gone a little too far thanks to the character of Tom, who wants to do more than just survive. The conflict between their opposing views is well done, with neither being completely wrong and meaning that neither comes of us unlikable either.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast suffers a little from the structure of the movie, with the majority clearly not being considered main characters and the first few switches between the time periods shown making it clear that they won't survive to the end. John Malkovich is the best of the rest as Douglas, but even he feels very much like an archetype instead of a real, nuanced person.
One thing I will give Bird Box unending praise for is how it depicts things unravelling, with chaos in the streets flaring up very quickly, remaining entirely consistent with how the invisible beings are shown to work. It reminded me very much of one of the better scenes in World War Z, showing the zombie outbreak in a city and how quickly hell can break loose.
In all honesty, I would've liked to see more of how the world came tumbling down than what we got, especially with such ultimately disposable supporting characters (including two who drive off, don't come back and could've pretty much been cut entirely from the film). There was a great level of urgency and tension in those scenes that later moments were lacking.
And it really is that manufactured threat from the 'insane' people that drags Bird Box down for me, acting almost as an admission that there wouldn't be much of a movie otherwise, with people learning to cope with limited visibility to some extent. There's so much potential for a really great story here, but the set-ups never get the payoffs they deserve.
Bird Box is a pretty good example of "what could've been", taking a pretty good premise and not doing enough with it to prove satisfying. The biggest issue feels like the script is trying a little too hard to avoid falling into expected horror/post-apocalypse cliches that it creates a whole new set of problems that make the story not quite work.