Susan Bier, 2018, USA
The high concept end-of-the-world scenario this time is Sandra Bullock is pregnant but seemingly not quite the maternal type, preferring to paint and stay home rather than go out and start mothering (it’s the art/motherhood conflict). Then the apocalypse happens and people start seeing something that makes them either suicidal or homicidal. So don’t look… although it seems that whispers of temptation from your subconscious has a lot to do with it too. Soon Bullock is holed up with a house of mismatching and bickering survivors, including the archetypal John-Malkovich-is-an-asshole type.
It’s like the Talk Talk song ‘Happiness is Easy’ which points out that a part of religion’s key allure is the faith that the afterlife is better – so why not kill yourself? The threat in ‘Bird Box’ seems to be not only that the vision is sublime, but also the appeal of an (empty?) promise that you get to see your deceased love ones. Which casts Bullock’s trajectory to motherhood as a struggle against violence – to herself and others. The family dynamic becomes literally blindfolding yourself and trusting to luck. Or to the kindness of the narrative. And it plays on the themes of kindness and empathy whilst also check-listing that no-good-deed-goes-unpunished. But as the cast is whittled down, all this is filtered to Bullock opening her eyes to motherhood.
‘Bird Box’ was/is a NetFlix phenomenon, the self-perpetuating kind made possible by social media and memes and the “Bird Box challenge” (where you can play at being blind!). It’s just dangerous enough to mark genre credentials and yet safe enough to be a crossover hit – for the big screen, it was rated “R”, but it’s average stuff for a horror fan. More than many NetFlix originals, this feels like a TV movie.
Based on Josh Malerman’s novel, this will inevitably be compared to ‘A Quiet Place’ in that survival depends more-or-less upon denial of one of the senses. But blindness is surely harder to convince with because, even if we accept the rapids, when they are fleeing through woods and not constantly tripping or running into trees it relies more on suspension of belief. Perhaps the “blind” car expedition for food is the best horror set-piece as it taps into something truly unpalatable – as well as being great promotion for proximity sensors. Bier doesn’t take us close to the detail of being blind, mostly rendering the experience from mid-shots or in brief cuts, such as small moments of blindfolded camera; she never truly finds a way of solving the problem of characters not being able to see in a visual medium which deflates any terror.
‘Bird Box’ is serviceable and slick then, if average, and the blindfolds provide a vivid meme that audiences have already run with. But there’s not enough in the execution to overcome its obvious weaknesses –where it differs crucially from ‘A Quiet Place’ – or the questions that Amy Nicholson lists:
"However, the back of the audience’s brain is stuck trying to figure out things like: are the monsters hunting their prey, or is it just impersonal? How do the roommates get rid of the corpses? And how offended will the American Psychiatric Association be that Bird Box’s secondary fiends are mental patients who, according to the film, can’t be driven crazy by the creatures because they’re already insane?"
And now falling into the mode of cheesy reviewer’s-punning-punchline: you’ll be looking for more.