AFI Fest 2018: Bird Box, by David Bax
Is anything actually worth living for against all odds or do we just soldier on out of primal instincts of self-preservation? It’s a solemn question to ponder, which is perhaps why Susanne Bier’s Bird Box only really goes so far as to raise it but lacks the conviction to actually explore it. It’s too bad because Bier has crafted a horror thriller sturdy enough to keep from being a failure but not one distinct or courageous enough to stand out from the pack.
Sandra Bullock stars as Malorie, a Sacramento artist and soon to be single mother. A mysterious worldwide epidemic of mass psychosis that drives people to suicide is spreading quickly and it catches up with Malorie while she’s on the way home from an appointment with her ob-gyn. She takes refuge in a nearby home where the owner (BD Wong) has welcomed in a number of strangers. They seem to be safe as long as the curtains are drawn but flash-forwards to a bleaker future in which Malorie and two young children are rafting blindfolded downriver with tattered hope of reaching safety suggest that the reprieve won’t last.
Bird Box belongs to the subgenre of survival horror, which goes back at least to The Night of the Living Dead but ballooned after its popularization in horror video games starting in the 90s. In any case, you’ve seen this set-up before and you’ll recognize the archetypes that emerge; the cynic, the innocent, the leader, the asshole (there’s always an asshole and this one is played to perfection by John Malkovich). In the case of a decently budgeted and pedigreed movie like this one, you get some recognizable faces among these, even if they only exist to be picked off by whatever the movie’s monster/apocalyptic hokum might be. Here we get Tom Hollander, Sarah Paulson, Rosa Salazar, Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, Lil Rel Howery and rapper Machine Gun Kelly among the potential victims.
All of them play some familiar character or another. There’s a hint, though, that this might be intentional, that there might be a metatextual level to Bird Box. Perhaps the way terror forces these people into stereotypes is meant to mirror Malorie’s fear that motherhood will do the same to her. There’s a good argument to be made, at least for the movie’s first half, that this is the case. The way others keep making assumptions about Malorie and decisions on her behalf due to her “condition” reinforces the notion that she’s stepped into a role she never wanted to play. This thread too, however, is dropped. Instead, we end up with reassuring bromides about motherhood that wouldn’t be out of place on a TGIF sitcom.
Bier knows how to handle action and tension, though. And, more than once, she and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (adapting Josh Malerman’s novel) devise scenarios and images that are truly frightening. But the intellectual laziness is too much to ignore. Bird Box repeatedly reverse-engineers emotional turns by seeding the story with preposterous contrivances that only exist to be undone in the prescribed moment. This falseness is a loose thread that you’ll likely want to keep pulling until the whole thing unravels.