With virtually every climate forecast predicting that we’ll see some kind of societal breakdown within our own lifetimes, it’s probably inevitable that we’d reflexively live out our worst end-of-days scenarios on film. In Susanne Bier’s Bird Box, that apocalyptic scenario is… an unidentified something — maybe a biological weapon, maybe an airborne virus, maybe an angry God — but certainly a thing that lives outdoors and will make you instantly commit suicide if you look at it (and with a 100% success rate). It offers a vivid new vision of the apocalypse without necessarily having much new to say about it.
The deadly whatever strikes suddenly, coming to Sacramento just as pregnant single artist Malorie, played by Sandra Bullock with a perfect smoky eye, is on her way home from a prenatal checkup. She’s a reluctant mother worried she won’t be able to summon the necessary maternal instincts in time for her progeny. Mass hysteria puts that on the backburner for a while as she has to deal with crashing cars and flying corpses — a full-on societal collapse.
The rub of this outdoor airborne Medusa virus is that you have to force yourself not to see if you want to live, like a high stakes game of Made You Look. It’s also an almost perfect mash-up of A Quiet Place and Children of Men.
Bird Box‘s strength is a unique and vividly realized vision of the apocalypse, which allows for some memorable imagery, like Sandra Bullock in a blindfold floating down a foggy river with two blindfolded in children in tow (are they hers? where did that second one come from?). The dialogue (with Eric Heisserer adapting from a book by Josh Malerman) is also sharp and realistic, particularly in the opening scene between Malorie and her sister, played by Sarah Paulson. (Is Sarah Paulson ever not great?)
The action gets slightly more contrived when Malorie holes up in a nice house owned by misanthropic intellectual Douglas (John Malkovich) and a rogue’s gallery of “types,” which includes: Douglas’s gay neighbor (BD Wong), a young cop-in-training (Rosa Salazar), the funny grocery store clerk (Lil Rel Howery), the good-hearted war veteran guy (Trevante Rhodes), a sweet older woman (Jacki Weaver), and a rapper for some reason, played by Machine Gun Kelly. Actually, I don’t know if Machine Gun Kelly was supposed to be playing a rapper in the movie, or why he was there at all, really, other than to take me out of the narrative every time he was onscreen. I can’t imagine the thought process that goes, “Gee, who could we cast opposite Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, and Jacki Weaver? Ooh, I know, Machine Gun Kelly.” The guy must have an incredible agent.
Bird Box is strong on premise, imagery, and in the way it imagines the ripple effects of an apocalyptic event. The truest, most self-evident compliment I can give it is that when I heard a bump outside my apartment while I was watching it I got legitimately scared. It’s effective at putting you in the dystopian mindset. Do you hole up or investigate? Try to help others or circle the wagons?
Dystopian narratives often have trouble with follow through, the apocalypse apparently being easier to write yourself into than write yourself out of. Bird Box is no different. Perhaps that’s just the nature of the genre. I remember even being disappointed with the ending of Children of Men, though I’ve come to appreciate it more with time.
Bird Box doesn’t lose much of its value as a thriller, but as it goes on it becomes increasingly clear that it doesn’t have much to offer thematically. There’s a group of people whom the medusa virus doesn’t seem to affect, who seem to welcome it. What’s their deal? It’s an interesting twist worth exploring, but the film never goes further than their utility as antagonists would require.
Motherhood issues seem to go hand in hand with apocalyptic narratives, as they do in Malorie’s case. The central question seems to be whether the protective mothering instinct is inherently altruistic, to be able to put another person’s safety above one’s own, or simply tribal and primal, protecting one’s own genes at the expense of everything else — and in that, the ultimate act of selfishness. mother!, for all the things people supposedly hated about it, was one of the few films to grapple honestly with this.
Bird Box seems aware of the question, which manifests in the mystery of Malorie’s two children and how that plays out, but it’s mostly too timid to hazard a take. Instead, it retreats into familiar banalities about the importance of family and sells itself out for a weird, unsatisfying ending. Or sells itself down the river, as it were.
Still, it’s memorable if not exactly complete. Bird Box proves the relevance of dystopian narratives even as it ultimately disappoints. Maybe that’s why we keep trying to make this movie, because we know we still haven’t gotten it quite right.
Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can find his archive of reviews here.