Bird Box movie review: Sandra Bullock, screenwriter Eric Heisserer power Netflix's post-apocalyptic thriller
Bird Box toes the line. It holds your attention. It lets your imagination run wild, and sparks a ticker of running questions while you're engrossed with what's happening on screen.
This review has some spoilers.
When Stephen King praises a supernatural thriller, you know there's something special in store.
Netflix's Christmas release, Bird Box, starring Sandra Bullock and directed by Susanne Bier, had misleadingly been compared to John Krasinski's A Quiet Place, for they both share a similar premise. They're both post-apocalyptic thrillers, set in a world that has been rampaged by a supernatural force/entity. Two lead characters (Sandra Bullock and Emily Blunt) are pregnant, and the familial unit is a strong theme.
But Bird Box toes the line. It shocks you, and holds your attention. It lets your imagination run wild, and sparks a ticker of running questions while you're engrossed with what's happening on screen. While the entity in A Quiet Place is used as a catalyst to establish a world where noise kills you, it's a film where the performances, pacing and thrills take precedence over premise. On the other hand, in Bird Box the concept of/mystery behind the supernatural force is exactly what elevates the film from yet another dramatic good-vs-evil blockbuster — a vehicle for Sandra Bullock to show off her badassery.
Bird Box runs between two timelines. The films opens in present day, where Malorie (Bullock) and her two children have to escape from their home, in blindfolds. They have to make a two day trip down a dangerous river to find help and a safe haven; and most importantly, to survive. "Don't open your eyes, or you will die," says Malorie to the children, Boy and Girl. The urgency with which she establishes the rules reels you in. Bullock's panic is the first emotion you feel in the film, even though she plays the valiant survivalist role to perfection (she can survive the harshest of circumstances; remember Speed and Gravity?).
The second timeline unfolds five years earlier. Malorie is pregnant, and on her way back from the hospital all hell breaks lose. Mass hysteria and unexplained suicides are spreading all over the world. A supernatural entity is forcing people who look at it directly to kill themselves, and exhibit psychotic behaviour. Malorie gets stuck in a house with a couple of strangers — Trevante Rhodes, Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, and Lil Rel Howery among others — and together they navigate through this dystopian state of affairs.
Bird Box is a movie of questions: What is this entity? What are people seeing that makes them want to kill themselves? (There are people shooting themselves, walking in front of a moving truck, and one lady simply sat in a burning car because she seemed to have seen her mother in there.) Why do their eyes turn into a crawling, unfolding black mess upon sight? Will you die if you look at entity through a filler (like a camera lens or CCTV footage?). Is surviving the same as living? (the last one forms the crux of an emotional climax).
Bird Box is the sort of film that makes you feel like you're taking that journey along with Malorie. It's a terrifying, engaging thriller where the open-ended questions don't bother you but allow you to come to your own conclusions.
Susanne Bier and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (who also wrote Arrival) have included atmospheric hooks that propel the plot forward. Spoiler: At some point in the film we learn the criminally insane/mentally challenged are exempt from this entity's powers. They don't kill themselves, but describe the beings as beautiful. A group of the clinically insane people routinely take rounds of abandoned homes to any survivors to look at this being directly. "They will cleanse the world," they say. At one point, a mentally unstable character named Gary (the effortless Tom Hollander) reveals through his sketches what the entity looks like (since he's probably seen it) and it is frightening. Spoiler ends.
Bird Box has several taut and tense sequences. One that stands out is from the past timeline, where the house inhabitants make their way to an abandoned supermarket to get more supplies. They black out the windows and rely on GPS to find their way. This is the first time the group has ventured out of the house since thousands have killed themselves. The entities are still out there, and you are made well aware of it through growl sounds, a play of light and wind. This timeline has more meat to chew on. You have characters to root for, and a palpable sense of doom. The camerawork is fidgety and background music eerie. Something big is coming, you feel.
In the present day timeline, leaps of faith are used to patch things together, to try and answer some questions, but too much screen time is devoted to Bullock's survival. By the time the climax rolls around, you don't feel as challenged because you know that Bullock will find her way. This timeline has the better visuals, though. A misty, flowing river. Establishing pan shots to contrast with a claustrophic home from the other timeline. Ambition. Love. Family. It's all here.
And, the million dollar question. What is the film's connection to birds? Apart from being a fellow character (the children carry a box of 3 birds on their journey down the river and use them a sign for when the entity is around — because they start chirping loudly), the birds represent freedom, flight and life itself. Survival isn't the same are being/feeling alive, and the birds teach you that.
Bird Box has polarised audiences. For the most part, the post-apocalyptic thriller has received a lukewarm response by critics. But a quick glance on twitter will reveal that it has managed to terrify most people who have watched it. There's a common notion that while Netflix's shows are setting a benchmark as far as varied, interesting content is concerned, films that land up on Netflix have reached there because they were too big a risk, or not quite that good enough for a theatrical release. Bird Box proves that wrong when it comes to engagement. This may just be the Christmas film we needed.
Besides, Stephen King thought it was riveting, so what else matters?
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