‘Bird Box’ Tries to Soar But Instead Falls Flat

Netflix’s newest film, Bird Box, was supposedly a smash hit. The notoriously tight-lipped streaming service proudly reported the film had reached over 45 million streams, the first time they have openly declared any site metrics. This led to Twitter questions about completion rates, watch time, and more. On top of that, the conspiracy theories began to flow about Netflix paying people to tweet memes about the film, or that they were employing bots to help with their marketing. In the year of our Lord 2018, we are now seriously concerned about companies paying people to secretly make memes. This is a lot of attention, conspiracies, and fixation on a film that is really just OK.

Similar to A Quiet Place and Hush, Bird Box relies on sensory experience for its horror. In this case, seeing the film’s monster will cause its victims to commit suicide by whatever means necessary. But what is the monster? Why is it here? Great question, and sadly you won’t get an answer. It is briefly speculated that these are invisible demons that manifest as a person’s greatest fear, causing mass death and will eventually lead to the extermination of the human race. This comes from conspiracy theorist and grocery store clerk, Charlie (Lil Rel Howrey) and that’s all we really get about the monsters’ origins. We also learn that the mentally ill can see them without committing suicide, which is a baffling choice that is granted no explanation or discussion.

Bird Box follows the typical narrative structure of an apocalyptic film where a group of strangers gather in a confined space to help each other survive and figure out what they are up against. The film focuses on Malorie, played brilliantly by Sandra Bullock. We see her in two spaces of time: in the present where she is rowing two children down and river and in the past where she is pregnant and struggling with the idea of motherhood. A pregnant Malorie escapes the monsters by finding shelter in a nearby home, where she meets up with a cast of characters, from a war veteran to an old woman to an off duty cop. They must all work together to survive, which obviously comes with roadblocks, tragedies, and missteps.

Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson in ‘Bird Box.’ Sadly, they are not a couple.

As I said before, Sandra Bullock’s performance as Malorie is stellar, with Bullock dominating every scene with her intensity, inner conflict about motherhood, and attempts to be tough. While she is the film’s shining star, other cast members stand out, such as Trevante Rhodes as Tom, John Malkovich as a wiseass drunk, and a creepy Tom Hollander whose few minutes onscreen change the course of the film.

But a stacked cast can’t make up for the disorientating editing choices that plague Bird Box. The film takes place in the present as Malorie takes her children, Boy and Girl, down a river to supposed safety, and five years in the past when the disaster begins. These two settings feel like entirely different movies, and not in a good way. The sequences filmed on the river are desolate, tense, and ooze desperation. They are beautiful and cold, with everything washed in grays and deep blues. Then, the sequences in the past as bright, clunky, and almost silly. While these tonal differences could have worked to depict changes over time, all it does is make the film feel disjointed and disorienting.

Throughout confusing editing, unanswered questions, and a questionable monster, the central theme of motherhood never wavers. In a year full of bad ass women and complicated mothers, Bird Box fits squarely into this trend. Director Susanne Bier handled the topic at times with nuance and grace, and other times she handled it clumsily. Regardless, she portrays motherhood as something that isn’t always wanted and as something that doesn’t always manifest as pure, unwavering love. It is refreshing to see a pregnancy as something that is not so beautiful and amazing, but rather an inconvenience and nuisance. But just when this portrayal feels refreshing, it becomes frustrating with how heavy handed they decide to portray Malorie’s disconnection with motherhood. She doesn’t name her children, calling them only Boy and Girl to avoid attachment, and threatens them when they don’t follow her orders (they are five-year-olds, by the way). Her intensity, while justified, comes off too strong; an attempt at nuance falls into disappointing absurdity.  

Despite the film’s bafflingly saccharine ending and jarring editing choices, it is still a horror film directed by a woman who tries to depict the struggles of motherhood in the face of horror. Sure, Bird Box is extremely heavy-handed, and unintentionally comedic, at times in discussing the topic, it still showcases the shifting representation of motherhood in the horror genre, particularly in the hands of a female director. My affections for that attempt can only take me so far, though, and I am left wishing Bird Box had given me more. It is a fun movie to throw on as you can through Netflix’s offerings for the hundredth time, but unfortunately, it will soon flit out of your mind.

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