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Sunday, December 30, 2018 | Review

BIRD BOX (2018)
Starring Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, Danielle Macdonald and John Malkovich
Directed by Susanne Bier
Written by Eric Heisserer
Netflix Distribution

Based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Josh Malerman, BIRD BOX is a recent offering that frustrates as much as it engages. As we all sit and watch our screens, waiting for the apocalypse in whatever form it arrives, there must be some comfort in seeing stories about the end of the world (and struggling to survive it) play out across those same screens. In this day and age, everyone wants reassurance that even if the inevitable happens, they’ll survive if they are just capable enough in the moment. Of such thoughts are films made. And here we are again…

Malorie (Bullock), an expectant single mother, sees the rapid collapse of civilization occur as a wave of mysterious suicides sweep the globe, causing chaos. Sheltering in a home with a rag-tag group of other survivors – including equally pregnant Olympia (Danielle Macdonald), kind and courageous Tom (Trevante Rhodes), and Trumpian misanthrope Douglas (John Malkovich) – they eventually realize that the mere sight of some strange, invisible creatures triggers an overwhelming suicidal urge, and so take to blindfolding themselves as they venture outside to explore for supplies. But danger comes not just from the enigmatic beings themselves, but from other people who (having seen the things and survived) seem converted to their apocalyptic cause. In a parallel narrative set 5 years in the future, Malorie attempts to travel downriver to a safe haven with two children, Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair).

“…the scenario is immediately engaging and disturbing in the way that “watching the apocalypse ramp up to speed” can be. But the film, as a whole, feels like an empty exercise.”

BIRD BOX has been getting some good reactions, and so I checked it out despite my general dislike for post-apocalyptic settings (which, in this case, constitute about half of the narrative). And no doubt there are things to like – the scenario is immediately engaging (although more on this in a moment) and disturbing in the way that “watching the apocalypse ramp up to speed” can be. The invisible creatures (whose arrival is heralded by panicked reactions from birds – hence the title – in “canary in a coal mine” fashion) are intriguing for a while. The acting is generally solid. But the film, as a whole, feels like an empty exercise.

The film unerringly recreates a key scene from RICK AND MORTY!

One could approach that emptiness from a historical perspective – the glib reduction is A QUIET PLACE (2018) and THE HAPPENING (2008) mashed together with elements from THE MIST (2007), DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978/2004) and, heck, why not DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1962)? The “raiding the supermarket” scene easily resonates with the “at play in fields of commerce” elements of DAWN and MIST, while the worldwide irresistible urge for self-annihilation is right out of the Shyamalan film’s playbook. And the “limited senses” aspect speaks to both QUIET PLACE and TRIFFIDS. But recent readings of online criticism have led me to believe that comparisons to predecessors – in an age in which BRAINSTORM (1983) is considered “lost” and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002) is “underrated” (it made 6 times its budget at the box office!) – only gets you opprobrium and accusations of “gatekeeping,” so lets abandon the “unsatisfying genre mix and match” critique.

Besides, a film borrowing from other films is not inherently a *bad* thing just, lacking a more solid structure on which to hang the borrowings, a lazy one. And that’s really where my problems with this film lay: the creatures, by plot conceit, are unknown and unknowable. Fine. But this then leaves the central threat of the film ambiguous and so our characters’ attempts to resist them, without any concept – on their or the viewer’s part – of the parameters this entails seemed either realistically doomed or unrealistically “writer-lucky.” And believing in the central threat to our characters, and their ability to overcome it, is key to such a plot working effectively. When the survivors (unrealistically) use GPS to blindly navigate to the Supermarket, why is there no assumption that one of these invisible things may have slipped into the garage as they pull away, or into the supermarket itself through some unknown access (being blindfolded, they have no ability to “case” the building beforehand)? In fact, seeing that these beings seem immaterial (we never know for sure), why does hiding in a house even work? And are they roaming around like lions, able to physically attack people, or is it just that their proximity will drive even the strongest individual, even when blindfolded, to kill themselves? What purpose does it serve the plot to know that they can’t be viewed safely over a camera (and why does everyone go downstairs during the experiment)? The screenplay doesn’t really care or think its important (perhaps the novel did) – what’s most important is moving from one immediate suspense/engagement generating scenario (the world falling apart, opening the front door, getting to the supermarket, letting in the stranger, etc.) to the next such scenario, with sometimes inexplicable success (the difference between this film and A QUIET PLACE is that the latter convinced me that people could actually survive for an extended period of time in such a situation, whereas BIRD BOX does not).

Without a solid plot narrative (the “5-years-later” frame succeeds at both enervating the immediate situation of tension and providing an unsatisfying coda) or compelling characters (so much snarky quipping at the end of the world! So much “assholes are people too!” sentiment as well), one need only take a step back to suddenly feel as if the viewer is being jerked around from one threat to another (and the movie does that perception no favors by instinctively sliding downhill into menacing newborn babies, post-birth mothers and small children). All of which may sound like I thought BIRD BOX was awful, which I didn’t – it’s just a very good example of how engaging surfaces, threats and scenarios lifted from other films can hide a hollow, mediocre movie – all glitter covering an empty box. Those who are easily satisfied can walk away saying “well, it filled two hours.” And there’s no arguing with that.

Shawn Garrett
Shawn M. Garrett is the co-editor of PSEUDOPOD, the premiere horror fiction podcast, and is either the dumbest smart man or the smartest dumb man you ever met. Thanks to a youth spent in the company of Richard Matheson, Vincent Price, Carl Kolchak & Jupiter Jones, he has pursued a life-long interest in the thrilling, the horrific and the mysterious – be it in print, film, art or audio. He has worked as a sewerage groundskeeper, audio transcription editor, pornography enabler, insurance letter writer – he was once paid by Marvel Comics to pastiche the voice of Stan Lee in promotional materials and he spends his days converting old pulp fiction into digital form for minimal pay. He now lives near the ocean in a small metal box and he hopes that becoming a Yuggothian brain-in-a-jar is a viable future, as there is NO WAY he will ever read all the books he has on his lists, or listen to all the music he wants to hear. Everything that he is he owes to his late sister Susan, a shining star in the pre-internet world of fan-fiction, who left this world unexpectedly in 2010. He spends an inordinate amount of time reading, writing and watching movies.