Last night, I skipped everything already sitting in my incredibly long Netflix queue and watched the new science-fiction/horror/apocalyptic/Sandra Bullock-in-a-blindfold flick Bird Box. Most of the reviews I’d read of it were favorable, and the negative takes seemed a little fussy for my tastes. The trailer was promising, and it seemed like something I’d enjoy.
Here’s the basic premise: People around the world have started committing suicide, and no one knows why. Right away, we’re thrown into the point-of-view of the shockingly pregnant Malorie (Bullock), who falls in with a group of survivors sheltering in a spacious, well-furnished house owned by a guy named Greg (BD Wong). In short order, we learn that the only way to continue to survive is to avoid looking at some mysterious somethings lurking outside. For the rest of the movie, the narrative switches back and forth between the now–the actual end of the world, in progress–and five years later, when Malorie is traveling down a river in a boat, blindfolded and accompanied by two children, named Boy and Girl.
Is Bird Box perfect? No, but it has some strong points in its favor, the biggest being the cast. Bullock and Trevante Rhodes are strong leads, but for my money, the heaviest hitters are the supporting cast: BD Wong, as generous homeowner Greg; John Malkovich, as Greg’s litigious shotgun-wielding, hard-drinking neighbor Douglas; Lil Rel Howery, as jumpy apocalyptic novelist/supermarket employee Charlie; Danielle McDonald, as the sweet and innocent yet strong mom-to-be Olympia; and most of all, Tom Hollander, as creepy, mysterious survivor Gary. (Seriously: Hollander is probably on screen for five minutes, tops, but he isn’t wasted. Trust me on this.)
Tension and jump scares are in plentiful supply in Bird Box, of course, and they all work well. Part of the conceit of the film is that, when characters travel outside, they have to block their own vision to avoid seeing the whatever-they-might-be things that’ll probably make them go insane, and the filmmakers find creative ways to exploit the resultant claustrophobia. Occasionally, it can feel a little manipulative, but for the most part the payoffs are high enough that you won’t care.
One of the other things working in Bird Box‘s favor is its minimalistic approach to explaining the apocalypse. It doesn’t go out of its way to give lengthy interpretations. Instead, characters hypothesize possible reasons for why things are suddenly heading south in a hurry, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions. As the old cliche goes, good apocalyptic stories aren’t about the end of the world–they’re about how characters respond to the end of the world. (It’s a cliche, by the way, because it’s true.)
Don’t be put off by comparisons to John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place. Josh Malerman’s novel Bird Box came out in 2014, and even he admits it was actually inspired by M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. I’m glad something good came out of that movie.
Bird Box is available for streaming on Netflix.