Film review by Jude Joseph Lovell
One night about four or five years ago the then-popular English “boy band” One Direction released a new single internationally. My two daughters were pre-teens at the time and were obsessed with the band, so much so that they made me listen with them before school the next morning.
When I heard the tune—a synthetic, cooing ballad—all I could think was, “That sounds like something made in a conference room, by people poring over charts and data.” In other words, nowhere near a music studio, let alone any real instruments.
The memory of this came flooding back to me while watching Bird Box, a dystopian thriller released by Netflix last December and starring the Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock. The film has received mixed reviews from viewers and critics, and generated some buzz because of a few minor controversies: the use of real-life disaster footage in one crucial sequence, a dangerous trend among some foolish types to attempt to drive while blindfolded, and the rumor that the entire film was cobbled together through the use of an algorithm (it wasn’t).
Sadly, especially given the number of talented people involved, Birdbox is a great disappointment. The director, Susanne Bier, is a filmmaker of considerable renown. Her previous work, such as the Oscar-winning In a Better World, the excellent After the Wedding, and the slick but effective mini-series The Night Manager are evidence of this. But Bier’s generous skills are mostly squandered in this film by atrocious writing and glaring holes in plausibility.
The premise of Birdbox, based on Josh Malerman’s novel of the same name, is that an unknown, possibly alien infection is spreading across the world. Whatever it is, if you see a carrier of the ailment, you go insane and try to kill yourself. The only way to survive is to wear a blindfold at all times, unless you are secure indoors.
We first meet Bullock’s Malorie Hayes on the run with two small children, all blindfolded, moving through the woods toward a river. They manage to secure a rowboat and float downstream while Malorie desperately appeals for help on a small hand-held radio. They also have with them a shoebox containing three small birds who squawk when any malign entities are near.
Then we flash back five years to a pregnant Malorie, a lonerish visual artist who has been abandoned by her partner. She is visiting her ob-gyn with her sister, Jessica, played by the versatile Sarah Paulsen. Unfortunately, on the way back all hell breaks loose, and Jessica is killed. Malorie is rescued and dragged into a house with a bunch of other people.
The action toggles back and forth in time between events on the river and in the house. The concept of a group of strangers trapped inside with a mysterious killer outside is a familiar horror/thriller trope, of course, with a million examples, ranging from Night of the Living Dead to The Cabin in the Woods. Today you just need to ensure that the “random” gathering is a perfect cross-section of our current demographic. So you include persons of color, at least one gay character, a few Gen-Z types whose only concern is themselves, and some friendlier but softer folks for cannon fodder. The appeal, I guess, of the bulk of Bird Box is watching this group of thinly drawn survivors gradually dwindle.
An attempt has been made to give the film heft by casting two mature actors whose talents end up being wasted: John Malkovich, who plays a despicable lawyer, and the fine Australian actress Jackie Weaver (see David Michod’s excellent Animal Kingdom), who is so under-utilized that one can only hope she was handsomely remunerated for her pain.
The scenes on the river, while well executed and suspenseful, grow increasingly hard to believe. How does a blindfolded woman in a rowboat with two young children capsize in roaring rapids and manage to rescue herself and both kids? How is it that some malevolent people turn up late in the film without blindfolds, seemingly unaffected? Apparently a cheaply uplifting finale is supposed to earn the viewers’ forbearance.
The problem with Bird Box is laziness. The filmmakers seem not to be very interested in telling a nuanced, original story. They want to do just enough to keep you on board for two hours and then whisk you to the “You May Also Like” suggestions that follow the credits.
Sure, it’s only two hours. But in this day and age, especially since you never know what nameless threat might descend, there’s one thing for certain: you’ll never get them back.
Photo credits: theverge.com and netflix.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.