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Bird Box (15)

Director: Susanne Bier

Screenplay: Eric Heisserer

Starring: Sandra BullockTrevante RhodesJohn Malkovich

Review: David Stephens

What’s worse than fighting an otherworldly menace that seeks to destroy humankind? Fighting an otherworldly menace that seeks to destroy humankind… without being able to look at it… probably. Not a feeble Xmas cracker joke, but the premise of “Birdbox”. Whilst the idea of confronting monsters that exploit one of the five senses as a weakness, will have most people stroking their chins and reaching for “A Quiet Place” comparisons, this project actually originates from a novel that predates that film by several years. The same-named book was published in 2014, but the author (Josh Malerman) actually asserts that he wrote the draft for the plot some further years earlier, and delayed its completion due to similar themes inherent in “The Happening” and “The Road”. The book was optioned for a movie even before it was on the shelves, with Andy Muschietti (“IT”) eyed to direct it. Eventually it settled to Danish film director Susanne Bier (best known for “The Night Manager”) to helm the film, with Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, and Sarah Paulson all signed to star. Another Netflix original film, “Birdbox” is now streaming in the UK and USA territories and earning some respectful notices. So YGROY decides to tackle this modern-day Medusa, and takes a peek at the proceedings…

The film literally cuts to the chase with a blindfolded Malorie Hayes (Bullock) pleading with two similarly attired children (the imaginatively titled “Boy” and “Girl” played by Julian Edwards and Vivien Lyra Blair respectively) to “never, ever” remove their blindfolds, on pain of death and a possible beating from her. As they get into a boat for a sightless and perilous trip down a river, the narrative flashes back 5 years to reveal how Malorie got to this point. A vaguely bohemian artist on the verge of single motherhood, she is initially unaware of the imminent threat that is creeping across the globe. In Europe and Russia, hordes of people are inexplicably committing suicide for unknown reasons. In a superb sequence, Malorie is suddenly confronted by this Earth-changing phenomenon as she visits the hospital. An entity (or multiple entities) arrives in the populace, and the mere sight of it causes the unlucky victims to become insane and immediately take their own life in various grisly ways. Barely escaping, she finds herself in a mixed-up group of survivors reluctantly being given refuge by Douglas (Malkovich). As time passes Malorie learns the price of survival, as the narrative flip-flops between the past and that ongoing terrifying journey down the river… 

“Birdbox” is a well-made and acted film. At times it has breakout sequences that are superlative, beating anything seen in “The Happening” or similarly themed movies. But overall, this is the kind of fare that’s going to appeal more to a mainstream audience, rather than a genre-savvy one. It’s not that anything is done badly… far from it. It’s just that there’s not anything that strikes you as new and brave, and it’s also a case of underlying messages swamping the main narrative rather than enhancing it. It’s already been (somewhat unfairly) compared to “A Quiet Place”, but the style and atmosphere is different and bears more comparison with other apocalyptic movies like “The Mist” or “Cell”. However it does share common themes with “Quiet”, particularly around the complexities of parenthood and how easy it is to screw things up. But whereas that sound-deprived sci-fi was mostly a nail-biting thriller, “Birdbox” wears its blinded heart a bit too predictably on its sleeve. By the time you get to the climax, the relationship(s) between Malorie and other characters, and the inherent analogies about over-protectiveness and the need for hope, are cloyingly obvious. So much so, that they take emphasis away from the more disturbing elements of the plot.

If you’ve read the book (or other reviews of the film), then you’ll already know that this is far from being a monster-fest. The nebulous nature of the “creatures” means that they can be different things to different people (“Mom?”), and manifest themselves into something that drives humans to want death due to intense fear or despair. We won’t spoil the fact as to whether you get a good look at one of them or not, but don’t expect Cthulhu-type monstrosities to embrace the camera at regular intervals. Mostly they are heralded with a flutter of leaves, a slight displacement of gravity, and a whole lot of imagination. However, the creepy antagonists are responsible for some surprisingly chilling sequences which are pretty memorable. The opening salvo of Armageddon-ish moments trashes the slightly lame suicides from “The Happening” with plenty of disturbing details. From the zombified glaze that envelops the eyes of those that see those-who-should-not-be-seen, to the horrible incidental detail of somebody calmly climbing INTO burning car, it’s a strong start. This is also true of the pivotal midway character moment concerning “The Enlightened”, which makes for a much-needed jolt of tension and unease. As expected, the whole concept behind surviving without sight (albeit only on open ground) is occasionally milked for its potential. There’s a neat moment where the notion of seeing the creatures via camera or pixelation is explored to negate the fatal effect. Not to mention REALLY having to rely on GPS and parking detectors to drive a car blindly down the road. You get the idea with that and it makes for some really clever scenes.

However (and readers of the book might be surprised by this), the whole boat-trip and related excursions never really feel as tense as they should be, and seem like DLC to the main flashbacks. With the exception of Malorie, most of the other characters seem a little one-note, and hard to relate to. The present version of her is represented as being hard-hearted and unsympathetic, which contrasts with her earlier moods. Bullock plays the character well, but due to the nature of the story, her usual charisma is untapped. An early discussion about the consistency of vomit is the one light-spot you’re going to get in the entirety of the film. The main problem is that the Apocalypse seems a little over-familiar these days, with TWD and “A Quiet Place” having the thrills and thunder that “Birdbox” can’t quite match. The heart and message is there, but it doesn’t feel original enough to make it stand out from other films of its type. For a left-field suggestion, the 2013 Spanish thriller “Los Últimos Días” (also known “The Last Days”) takes a very similar concept but makes it more haunting and less preachy. Having said that, it’s still worth catching if you’re in a “festive” mood for an end-of-the-world opus, a fan of Bullock, or are justifiably intrigued by the concept. It’s also miles better than “The Happening” or “Cell” for a start. But as far as mainstream sci-fi thrillers go it’s merely fine, and it probably won’t be in most people’s Top 10 genre films this year. They are far better films out there… to see. 

Despite a couple of superlative sequences and a committed performance by Bullock, “Birdbox” still feels like a seen-it-before apocalyptic thriller that errs towards the bland. The theme(s) and the “action” work well at times, and some moments are genuinely chilling. But overall this is an end-of-days experience that could have been better in several ways. 
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