In apocalyptic films, family is most often the core theme. No matter if it's M. Night Shyamalan's abysmal film, The Happening or this year's smash hit, A Quiet Place, familial drama is something we can all relate to on some level; it helps ground the horror of the situation on screen. Therefore, I can see why many people are drawing parallels between Bird Box and the aforementioned films; they are, at the most basic level, dealing with the same kind of story.
I don't think the comparison is entirely accurate, though; while Bird Box is concerned with family, its thematic center is not "family" in the strict sense of the term. The film opens on Malorie, played by Sandra Bullock, giving a harsh speech to two children who she calls "boy" and "girl". Malorie's arc is not one of self-sacrifice, but rather one of emotional investment. Her impersonal orders, barked at these children as though they were adults, too, are spoken with the air of someone terrified to get attached to anyone or anything in a world where she could lose them in a split-second.
That theme and arc lend itself to more interesting character work -- work that Bullock mostly nails. The film falters in a few places, mostly toward the end of its second act, but Bullock is always an earnest and sympathetic protagonist who we root for and understand, even with her faults.
Bird Box's appeal comes from its unique premise, though. While it isn't capable of offering the cinematic immersion in its narrative that A Quiet Place was able to do with clever sound design, Bird Box makes the most of its invisible menace, utilizing shadows, wind, disembodied voices, and horrific, gruesome deaths to sell how dangerous it is. For some, this may not work. After all, there's only so many times you can see a shadow descend over a home, or wind begin to blow through trees before the aesthetic loses its charm. I found it to be an intriguing approach, though. Director Susanne Bier never shows her hand with what the monster is, where it comes from, or what exactly people see before they go insane, but with this restraint comes some effective horror.
In fact, I'm reminded a bit of 10 Cloverfield Lane which -- while still a great film -- reveals its hand in the final fifteen minutes of its runtime, effectively ruining the tension and fear that it created over the previous ninety minutes and undercutting the restrained, effective horror at its core.
Bird Box doesn't do that. One character postulates that it's a viral weapon attack from North Korea, while the sentient nature of the shadows and disembodied voices lend credence to the notion that this is a living being. I've even read intriguing reviews from folks who see the monster as a metaphor for mental illness, like schizophrenia.
Leaving the monster's identity open for interpretation allows for two things: first and foremost, it allows it to focus on the human story at the core (and the horror that comes with that), and it allows us to be just as confused and disoriented as our protagonist. While we can't spend the entire film blindfolded, Bier still gives us some level of chilling terror that Malorie experiences in this film.
My major complaint comes from this film's fragmented narrative. While I am a sucker for non-linear narratives, the constant cutting back and forth between present and past here undercut the tension that one or the other was in the midst of. Both in terms of its plotting and its emotional complexity, it would have been better for this film to be more linear and to use the river rapids as the actual climax of the third act. The runtime is a bit bloated, as well.
Bird Box doesn't nail every emotional moment it sets up, nor does it feel fully realized when the credits roll. However, the moments that do work are impactful. The horror is gruesome and chilling, and the emotional beats tend to work in spite of the fact that they rely on film conventions we've seen before. Even still, Bird Box is anchored by Sandra Bullock's impressive performance, Susanne Bier's restrained direction, and the no-holds-barred, visual horror on display. Bird Box may not reach its ambitious goals, but it comes pretty damn close.
“BIRD BOX” ★★★½
written by ERIC HEISSERER || directed by SUSANNE BIER
Rated R || 124 MIN || Released 21 December 2018