“A forgettable project that tries to contain a story that isn’t all that well-developed to begin with.”
by Ken Bakely
There’s a point when Susanne Bier’s Bird Box loses its own momentum and never gets it all back. Too caught between multiple approaches, from claustrophobic apocalyptic horror to austere survival thriller, the film lacks an overriding sense of vision or commitment. The former outlook depicts the instigating event that causes the latter: the emergence of a global crisis, in which the sight of a supernatural force that manifests itself around the world, and causes everyone who catches even a remote glimpse of it to immediately commit suicide. Malorie Hayes (Sandra Bullock), a pregnant artist who is caught up in the mayhem after it descends upon Los Angeles, takes refuge with a small group of fellow survivors in a nearby home. These scenes are primarily driven by the fear and chaos of the situation, as desperate attempts to determine how to avoid the presence and acquire survival resources prove difficult; while Malorie forms a bond with a survivor named Tom (Trevante Rhodes), hostilities within the group are frequent, providing danger inside to match the risks outside.
This is juxtaposed against the second part of the narrative, set five years after these events, in which Malorie cares for two small children alone in the wilderness. They’re traveling up a river in a canoe to an unknown destination, and they’re all blindfolded, in order to avoid looking at the presence. This is the setup for the film’s first scene, and from there, it sets about in cutting between the two settings, with focus gradually shifting from one side to the other throughout the runtime. Such a strategy is dependent on a tightly threaded narrative, able to answer its own questions and work within its own setups, but Bird Box is never compelling enough to meet its own demands. Supporting characters carry little flavor besides one-sided emotions: consider Olympia (Danielle Macdonald), another resident of the house and the mother of the second child Malorie winds up caring for, who is defined solely by naive benevolence; or the home’s owner, Douglas (John Malkovich), who does nothing except drink and alternate between insulting and threatening the other survivors. The plot’s setups and payoffs are hardly any more realized, with sudden resolutions and unearned attempts at catharsis marring the finale.
It’s these oversights which damage the fortunes of an otherwise robustly made movie. Salvatore Totino’s cinematography is suitably moody. The apocalyptic events and their immediate aftermath with a surrealistic glow: as the chaos is immediate and ongoing, every element of every location seems to harbor strange new dangers or unknown consequences. The post-apocalyptic side of things, in which Malorie leads the children through the river, is captured in terminal shades of gray. Bird Box also makes use of a solid cast, with Bullock tracing Malorie’s journey from unthinkable shock and trauma to resolved, grief-imbued determination. But neither she, nor any of her co-stars, can thrive with writing that’s so structurally tentative. Indeed, the whole movie plunges into a malaise of bland competence, with its pluses and minuses combining into a forgettable project that tries to contain a story that isn’t all that well-developed to begin with.
Bird Box can’t move beyond that, because it’s so stuck inside its own muddled writing that there’s no way to meaningfully develop the characters. The very first scene indicates to us that most of the initial survivors won’t make it, but even the nature by which the group is picked off is lopsided and disproportionate throughout the second act, emphasizing how expendable and underwritten many of them are. It’s a shame, because Bier is a competent director of this material, and her talents could have taken a better script and blasted it into the stratosphere. She’s always cognizant for ways to enhance the movie’s already dread-filled mood, and knows how to stage the bursts of violence and action in ways that seem freshly shocking each time. But she, like the rest of her cast and crew, are underserved by an execution that doesn’t allow everyone’s efforts to come together in the way they should. For too long, we’re not sure how these characters and scenarios will interlink within the five year gap that’s established from minute one. But by the time we get there, we’re don’t really care.