Can’t hear, can’t speak, can’t see: Susanne Bier’s “Bird Box” builds on the sensory deprivation horror trope that “Hush” and “A Quiet Place” capitalized on months earlier. (The narrative similarity is so apparent, it spawned a whole new meme.) In an era of increasing paranoia of our collective helplessness in the political sphere, little is more horrifying than restricted agency. (In that way, it feels tonally in sync with another Netflix release: “Bandersnatch,” the latest “Black Mirror” installment.)
Disappointingly, “Bird Box” feels less like a film — you know, that art form with its own muscle and verve — and more like a computer-generated amalgamation of societal anxieties and action blockbuster tropes. It’s the kind of genre flick that seems cobbled together from grab-bag thriller motifs drawn out of a hat. A resilient mother figure? Check. A desperate last-ditch journey to a (logically unfeasible) safe haven? Check. An apocalyptic global catastrophe as a vague topical allegory? Check, check, and check.
With a plot this formulaic, it’s unlikely that a full synopsis is necessary after five minutes of watching, but here goes anyway: First, a cryptic shot of a river portends disaster. Flashback to five years before: Malorie (Sandra Bullock), heavily pregnant but still a tough and no-nonsense gal, is accompanied by her horse breeder sister (a criminally underused Sarah Paulson) to an OB-GYN appointment. Suddenly, aforementioned disaster implodes their inoffensively pleasant existence. A mysterious force causes anyone who looks at it to go starry-eyed and kill themselves. Chaos abounds, and Malorie seeks shelter in a confusingly decked-out mansion with a motley crew that includes John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, Trevante Rhodes, Lil Rel Howery, BD Wong, and for some reason, Machine Gun Kelly. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
The usual archetypes abound. Malkovich’s character Douglas is an alcoholic grump whose main tic is cocking a shotgun and swilling whiskey. Rhodes’s Tom is a kind-hearted Iraq vet who insists on opening the door every damn time someone knocks. Machine Gun Kelly is a scrawny, bleach-blonde drug dealer who peddles pills even in the midst of catastrophe. Do any of these details matter? Intermittent flash-forwards show Malorie hauling two children across a river via rowboat, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict the fates of her companions in the bunker. It’s only a matter of time before Eric Heisserer’s screenplay cuts each lifespan short in a newly gruesome way, With unnaturally dark blood pooling on the floor. The deaths are made all the more senseless by their increasing frequency, and by the third or fourth, we’ve stopped caring.
Being a genre movie is a forgivable transgression if done well. Admittedly, “Bird Box” begins with an interesting conceit. Yet it’s quickly clear that the film can’t even sketch the contours of its own worldbuilding. What, exactly, is the entity that’s killing people? Bier establishes the relevant facts: Looking at it means death. Occluded vision, usually via blindfold, is the only way to survive. It whispers something meaningful to each listener, in the voice of a long-gone loved one. Also, “psychos” (to borrow the film’s terms) who escaped from the asylum can look at it without turning to suicide themselves, and evilly force others to witness its “beauty.” (Because people with mental illnesses are… trying to infect other people? The film’s take is murky and offensive.)
As for the specifics, even the characters themselves are unsure. Douglas concludes that the force “has a classic bio-warfare signature,” while Lil Rel Howery’s Charlie hypothesizes that it’s a religious reckoning of some kind. Thematically, it seems to be an allegory for … something. Climate change? Mental illness? Contagion? Nuclear war? Some other societal silent killer? Little else is clear, beyond the fact that it spells the end of the world as we know it. Here, ambiguity is neither generative, nor artistically purposeful. It’s just confusing.
But “Bird Box” isn’t merely qualitatively mediocre. At times, it is even problematically reductive, in its shoddy treatment of the mentally ill, gay people, people of color, and women, in rapid succession. Genre films like “Get Out” open the door for subversive representation, but “Bird Box” carelessly dispenses of its characters of color with disappointing ease. A minor (yet inconsequential) spoiler: Wong’s character, a gay Asian man, meets a grisly and all-too-soon end. Charlie meets a similar fate. Admittedly, Tom goes on to sustain a slightly longer arc, albeit mainly in service of Malorie’s character development. And Malorie herself is archetypal, in turns shallowly resilient, then shallowly emotional, as if this binary represents the sum total of female experience. In that vein, Bullock’s performance is mostly heavy breathing, crying, and tense yelling. On top of this, her character only achieves maturation by embracing motherhood (while not unbelievable per se, a narrative decision that feels emblematic of a hasty impulse by a male screenwriter).
Ultimately, “Bird Box” offers up a story that “The Quiet Place” already did better. Maybe it was mimetic that watching the film felt akin to witnessing a spiraling disaster, over the course of two painful hours. Seeing, it seems, is not always believing.
—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at email@example.com.