Riding the breeze of A Quiet Place’s success, Bird Box flaps along blindly, ultimately crashing to its conclusion like a pigeon into a windowpane.
The latest installment in the rapidly expanding subcategory of ‘sensory thriller’, Bird Box attempts to tell the story of a group of survivors in a world suddenly brought to a halt by the arrival of a swarm of creatures that, once seen, cause their victims to commit suicide. Following in the successful shadow of A Quiet Place and its use of sound, and the lack of it, for serious dramatic as well as narrative purposes, Bird Box attempts to do the same from a visual standpoint. Where A Quiet Place successfully leveraged sound design to ratchet up the tension, oftentimes letting the film descend into complete silence, Bird Box, whose protagonists cavort blindfolded through the world, isn’t able to achieve the same nail-biting result. ”Why all the comparisons?” you might ask, “Bird Box is its own film.” That’s true, but its proximity to A Quiet Place’s release (same year), and its reliance on the removal of a particular sense to survive an otherworldly threat, makes it impossible not to compare, which is unfortunate, because in almost every way, Bird Box comes up lacking next to its more noiseless counterpart.
Let’s continue on the topic of sense. Sound is a huge part of films. Every film school teacher will tell you that audiences are more forgiving of shoddy image quality than subpar sound work. Sound taps into us emotionally. From the score down to the smallest effects, everything is meticulously planned to evoke a response in the viewer, be it horror, happiness, or catharsis. This is why films like Hush and A Quiet Place were so resonant. The sound design helped immerse us in the film. I don’t mean to imply that Bird Box is auditorily equivalent to a mid-90s home movie shot on DV tape and submitted America’s Funniest Home Videos, that’s not the case. Bird Box fails not because of the sound but because of the premise itself. It’s just not exciting to watch Sandra Bullock flail around like a newborn giraffe, tripping on branches, rolling in dirt, all the while inexplicably keeping her nails perfectly manicured a la Mary J Blige in Mudbound. Compare Sandra Bullock’s blindfolded forest and river trek to watching Emily Blunt step on a nail and trying not to scream with a monster right outside her door. We all know which one had our hearts in our throats.
With half the film looking like a fan retracing the steps of Frodo and Sam on their quest to Mordor, the non-blindfolded sections of the film, namely the scenes set in the house hideaway, are the only times we get anything of interest. Locked away in a conveniently large house, forced to rely on each other for protection and survival, is a pretty varied ensemble. From the timid old lady played by Jacki Weaver, to the incessantly negative prick played by John Malkovich, we are treated to an eclectic cast of caricatures. The script (by Eric Heisserer of Arrival fame, stumbling here), lets each character stretch the bars of their one-dimensional cage for five minutes here and there to share some backstory, reach for a measly bit of development, before snapping the bars back into place. The entire ensemble checks all the boxes: the mean old man, the cop, the dark-web conspiracy theorist, the James Dean-esqe rebel, the vulnerable pregnant girl, etc. Still, it’s engrossing to watch the different personality types deal with the pressure of trying to survive a difficult situation and the inevitable power struggle a small living space crammed with people will cause, even if it sometimes stretches believability, AKA John Malkovich’s character, upon witnessing the death of another survivor, quips “Now we’ve got less mouths to feed”. Without a doubt, the standout performance of this group is the fantastic Trevante Rhodes. Like in Moonlight, he brings a warmth and sincerity to the roll of Tom that instantly makes you root for and worry for him. I can’t say the script gave any of the other cast members the opportunity to do the same.
Which brings me to Sandra Bullock’s character, Mallorie. Pregnant at the beginning of the film and saddled with two small children later on, Mallorie’s parenting style can only be described as perplexing. The film makes no secret of the subtext in Mallorie’s conversations with her sister at the beginning of the film. She’s afraid to bring a child into a world of problems you can’t control, and her pregnancy, by extension, is another one of those problems to her. Once the kids arrive, Mallorie goes full tiger mom, birthing them straight into boot camp, a dizzying wash of survival skills and training, no time for childhood. Mallorie doesn’t even give them names, opting instead for the individual-scrubbing nouns Boy and Girl. The only ray of sunshine is Rhodes’s Tom, who tries to give the kids some semblance of childhood enjoyment and wonder by telling them a story. But stories inspire hope and hope is bad in a bad world, so Mallorie rotors in, cutting the fun short. It’s a bizarre subtextual endorsement of the most egregious helicopter style of parenting. The world is dark and full of terrors and all we can do is exist as long as possible, hiding from everything, until the unknown eventually comes to claim us. Dark.
Bird Box began with an interesting premise that was ultimately squandered by thin characters, slack tension, and some questionable messaging. Despite some solid performances and interesting character interactions, Bird Box never really flies free of the wake of films that did it better.