Based on the trailer, I was afraid Netflix’s new movie Bird Box was going to be one of those unbearable children-in-peril movies. But it’s not that. The intensity level is only moderate. I was equally worried that it would be one of those downer-apocalypse movies like Children of Men or The Road (as opposed to exciting-apocalypse movies such as I Am Legend or World War Z). Bird Box isn’t really like that, either. Instead it’s a stack of Hollywood templates from different eras — the high-concept movie, the disaster epic, the zombie flick. Though violent, it isn’t especially disturbing, and there is no allegorical heavy lifting to be done, which means I declare Bird Box fit for holiday viewing, at least among adults. A couple of glasses of wine might even improve the experience. (But don’t do the same with Netflix’s other big movie, Roma, which demands concentration.)
Is Bird Box good? Not particularly, but it holds the interest. Sandra Bullock stars as a San Francisco painter and reluctant mother-to-be; after her ultrasound, she gazes longingly at a pamphlet about adoption. Along with her sister (Sarah Paulson), Bullock’s Malorie gets caught up in a viral epidemic of sudden-onset-insanity. (Don’t laugh; I recall such a thing actually happening in the United States as recently as Nov. 9, 2016.) People get a glassy look in their eyes, some unseen force grips them, and they step in front of a speeding truck or dutifully climb into a burning car. This sequence is a bit gory.
Somehow a hardy handful of survivors manage to rush into a house and bolt the door while they figure out what’s happened: Anyone outdoors with eyes open gets transfixed by some force (unseen by us viewers) that compels suicide. Only by using a blindfold while outdoors can one hope to survive. Inside, you’re okay as long as you keep the windows blacked out. And there’s an additional wrinkle involving people who were already lunatics to begin with, who are affected by the visions in a different way.
Mostly the film appealed to me on grounds of nostalgia — remember the gimmicky, high-concept flick that was designed to be explainable in a 30-second TV commercial? Movies like Indecent Proposal (1993), Ransom (1996), and Phone Booth (2002)? The studios decided that explaining a new idea every time they had a movie to roll out was too difficult and too expensive, so they switched to bombastic spectacle rather than intriguing story as the primary selling point, relying heavily on familiar characters. These days the high-concept movies tend to be low-budget ones like A Quiet Place.
That John Krasinski film was more serious about maintaining a sense of omnipresent danger than is Bird Box, which frequently takes breaks for levity. Smartass one-liners are probably not going to fill your mind in the event that everyone you know should kill themselves in the most horrible way imaginable. But screenwriters can’t resist them (although Krasinski, to his credit, left them out of A Quiet Place). I didn’t mind. I appreciated the throwback quality. Directed by Susanne Bier, Bird Box is shameless entertainment, so hurrah for that.
How shameless? We’re talking Poseidon Adventure shameless; there’s a demographically diverse array of strangers, thrown together under impossible strain. Who. Will. Survive? The strenuously motley crew includes a crusty cynic (John Malkovich); a funny geek (Lil Rey Howery) who (somehow) has all the exposition we need about how the suicide force works; a mawkishly brave fat girl (Danielle MacDonald) who is like the reincarnation of Shelley Winters; and a cool guy (Trevante Rhodes) who is nice enough to be a love interest for Malorie. Rhodes is 26 years younger than Bullock, and I don’t see a lot of spark between them, but both actors give it their best shot.
Bird Box (whose villainous unseen force seems borrowed from the one in M. Night Shyamalan’s ludicrous enviro-disaster parable The Happening) undercuts its own attempts at suspense by indulging in the hackneyed device of chopping up the story and telling it out of sequence. Half the movie depicts Malorie’s lonely struggle to move down a river to safety while she and two children are blindfolded; intercut with those scenes are the ones serving up the backstory, starting five years ago, when the plague began and those strangers huddled together in that house. So it’s pretty much assured from the start that bad things are going to happen to everyone except the star and the children.
Bullock is essentially pulling a Mel Gibson or a Will Smith: She’s the star, her character is going to find a way to persevere, this is why you bought your ticket. So what if Malorie is a painter with seemingly no expertise in survival techniques? She’s also a mom, and as we learned from Gravity (and The Blind Side), don’t cross Sandy Bullock when her maternal side gets activated. If it’s her against unseen monsters, feel sorry for the monsters.