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Is a Mother’s Love Enough to Keep Netflix’s “Bird Box” Afloat?

An examination of what pecks away at its potential

One of Netflix’s latest original creations is the apocalyptic thriller Bird Box, starring Sandra Bullock, directed by Susanne Bier, and based on the novel of the same name by Josh Malerman. The horror film has taken the internet by storm, with roughly 45 million Netflix users watching it within the first week of release, a streaming best for the site. It’s also been the butt of a great many jokes, in the form of internet “memes,” spread swiftly through Twitter and Instagram. While the success of the film highlights Netflix’s growing influence on the cinematic experience and overall entertainment industry, Bird Box doesn’t completely warrant its widespread praise, as wonderful as Sandra Bullock is.

Reminiscent of many modern horror films and TV shows (AMC’s The Walking Dead or 2018’s A Quiet Place) the story centers on a present-day protagonist thrust into the chaos and danger of an “end of the world,” survive-or-succumb narrative. Mass suicides have rapidly spread across the globe, the cause unseen and unknown. When the epidemic hits America, a heavily pregnant Malorie (Sandra Bullock) barely has time to absorb its arrival before crowds run wildly through the streets, explosive crashes set cars aflame, and more and more of the populace is taken out. As Malorie and others find safety within a shuttered house in the suburbs, they must learn to navigate the world they now live in, one in which, once facing the outside, requires them to be blind. The “creatures,” as they’re called, are never fully explained, and neither are they revealed to us, tempt potential victims by evoking the voices of loved ones. A strange gust of wind and a chattering of birds seem to mark their arrival, and if looked upon, you’re done for.

The first scene of the film is clearly much later in the timeline, and here is where Bird Box’s potential for an even greater elevation of suspense is lost. A man’s voice is heard explaining a compound lies at the end of a river promising safety, and the perilous journey is best if not done with children in tow. Unluckily for Malorie, we see her commanding two children, Girl and Boy (as many memes have referenced), to follow her orders, and to never take off their blindfolds. We’re then pulled back 5 years before, meeting Malorie and her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson), as they gripe over music volume and head to Malorie’s ultrasound. It’s here the creatures first arrive, and the story quickly escalates as we follow Malorie’s journey, which is intercut with her future trek down the river. Perhaps if the story had unfolded chronologically the uncertainty could have better taken hold, and we’d be equally reaching out in the dark, eager to find safety.

Sisters Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and Jessica (Sarah Paulson) take in the surrounding chaos. Courtesy of Netflix.

The manner in which the film states that “mentally ill” individuals can see the Creatures and survive is unsettling, especially as we’re never given an understanding as to why and must only accept this at face value. These few individuals who can look upon what plagues the world, and do so with relief and joy, then prey upon survivors and force them to open their eyes to its power, believing the process to be a “cleansing” of sorts – whether that cleansing is to kill you or turn you into an acolyte.

The minor characters in the first half of the film could have been strengthened, especially those who stayed on for more than a few scenes. Yet, it’s impossible not to, at the very least, love Sandra Bullock’s performance, as we witness Malorie’s fierce will to survive and protect those she loves. Bird Box capped off a string of 2018 horror films centered on a mother’s devotion to her family and children, such as Hereditary, Halloween, A Quiet Place, Suspiria, and Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House (OK, not a film, but absolutely a must-see).

Trevante Rhodes and Sandra Bullock as Tom and Malorie. Courtesy of Netflix.

The suspense and heightened reality are certainly there, as is a moving performance by Trevante Rhodes who plays Bullock’s fellow survivor and love interest, Tom. The script attempts to put a spin on familiar horror and thriller tropes, but Bird Box fell short and could have been made far stronger with a more polished plot (leaving for a shorter runtime) and narrative structure. The buildup would have been greater, and the payoff, even more so. I would have loved to see a clear, linear storyline, with more time spent on Malorie navigating from the city to the wilderness, on the move, as opposed to confined within one space for most the film. Or even just a tad more backstory before jumping in, to learn more about Malorie as a painter, her life before everything changed, and her relationship with Jessica. The bittersweet ending, while much darker in the novel, is almost predictable and could also have benefitted from keeping Malorie’s expedition down the river in its due section.

While Bird Box, despite its many issues, surprisingly rose to become a streaming favorite in December, it is a fair shot at producing an engaging thriller, and well worth watching for Sandra Bullock. Even if the film doesn’t all come together there are moments to love, moments that still you and make you move closer to the screen. Here’s to hoping 2019 delivers even more films within the genre.

What did you think of Bird Box? Did it live up to its hype or would you change something to make it stronger?

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