Netflix's 'Bird Box' wastes both Sandra Bullock and a perfectly good metaphor about facing our fears

Discovering that the way to survive is to put a blindfold on and ignore what scare you feels a bit too on-the-nose to go unaddressed.
Image: Sandra Bullock in Netflix's "Bird Box."
Sandra Bullock in Netflix's "Bird Box."Saeed Adyani / Netflix
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By Meredith Clark

Watching this movie, I wanted the kids to die.

This tends to be my experience watching any action-adventure movie in which saving children is a major plot point but which isn’t "Night of the Hunter" or "Aliens." In this case, the two kids in question were Sandra Bullock’s precious cargo in "Bird Box," the new apocalyptic thriller from Netflix. In a world where a mysterious force makes anyone who looks at it go violently insane, Bullock must shepherd two preschool-aged kids down a river to a sanctuary without anyone opening their eyes. Can hope (and maternal instinct) survive?

As a film, it’s a serviceable survival story populated by award-winning actors, and Suzanne Bier — who won an Academy Award for her film "In a Different World" — is a talented director, but there just isn’t enough detail to make the few genuinely tense setpieces worth the wait.

After a short introduction that sets up the main stakes — don’t take off your blindfolds, stay together, we’re going downriver — things flash back to art chick Malorie (Bullock) painting through her alienation and ambivalence over pregnancy to the annoyance of sister Sarah Paulson. After an OB-GYN appointment, mass suicide and violence breaks out all over the world, and Malorie takes shelter in a house with a small band of survivors, including John Malkovich, BD Wong, Jackie Weaver, "Moonlight’s" Trevonte Rhodes and "Dumplin’s" Danielle Macdonald.

Secrets, sex and betrayal ensue. Thanks to an apocalypse-junkie played by Lil’ Rey Howrey, the group comes to believe that they’re dealing with an evil that takes the form of their deepest fears, and the only way to avoid going insane is to never look clearly into the outside world. But a house inhabited by a handful of strangers during a catastrophe is the perfect breeding ground for cinematic chaos.

Rather than follow how Malorie manages to survive for five whole years avoiding detection by bands of psychopaths determined to expose everyone to what drove them insane before making her escape to the country, the film cuts between the suspenseful early moments when the mass die-off begins and scenes on the small rowboat carrying the blindfolded Malorie and the children to their destination.

But, by leaving the cause of the world’s collapse vague, Bier and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (working from Josh Malerman’s 2014 novel) rob the story of any stakes for the main character and her charges, as well as any deeper insight to the idea that facing your fears is so deeply terrifying that all of humanity would rather kill themselves than do so.

Yes, the protagonists have to survive, and yes, they have to find a way to do it without the benefit of sight, but discovering that the way to survive the modern world is to put literal blindfolds on you and your progeny and ignore things that scare you feels a bit too on-the-nose in 2018 to go unaddressed. But even within the confines of the story itself, there’s no sense of space or distance to orient the journey for viewers, even though Malorie clearly knows more or less where she's going, and the cinematography is too straightforward to make the sensory deprivation visceral. ("A Quiet Place," by contrast, was almost without spoken dialogue, but the expert sound design and use of sign language made that world feel cohesive, understandable and scary.)

It’s also lazy plotting to make the act of embracing motherhood by a woman who once felt ambivalent about it (which the script posits as a bad thing, all the way down to saddling her with the wanted child of another woman) the symbol of human connection — but that is just one of the most egregious ways the script manages to sell out what little character development actually takes place over two hours.

John Malkovich in Netflix's "Bird Box."Merrick Morton / Netflix

Despite a strong cast (virtually everyone in front of and behind the camera has won or been nominated for major awards) no one gets more than one scene to establish their horror movie archetype. Don’t hire the man who gave the world Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom to play a cookie cutter late capitalist jerkwad and then give him nothing to do. And the meatiest scenes both Wong and Weaver get are their death scenes, which may have been great for their paychecks but doesn’t bring anything to the film. (Wong was more memorable in his five minutes of screen time in “Jurassic Park.”)

And, as weird as it may have been a few years ago to see her on a straight to Netflix film, it’s even weirder to see Bullock, one of the world's most likeable actresses, playing a woman who pushes the world away because she’s afraid of human connection. There’s no depth to her supposed unlikeability and grit. There is plenty of room for film heroines who are cynical, angry pessimists without much parental warmth, but the way “Bird Box” is paced, there’s no explanation why Bullock changes at this moment in time rather than over the five un-filmed years.

Mostly, however, something deeply distasteful about a movie in which the heroic act is choosing blindness and insularity at this particular moment in time. Why make a movie with blindness as a central metaphor if you have nothing to say about the dangers of willfully turning away from things that scare us? Even if it was unintentional, the ending of the film is thus somehow sadder because the central trio makes it to their destination than even if one or more of them had died on the way. They learned nothing about what waits for them outside the gates of their refuge. Their hope for the future involves existing as mother and children, alone, until the end of whatever time they all have left, never knowing or really caring about what happens to anybody else.

The existential threats facing the world right now can only be addressed head on through massive collective action — not individual sacrifices or sudden spurts of empathy for someone else’s child (let alone, say, having the means to escape society's problems entirely, whether by boat or an expensive trip to Mars). Climate change is happening to everyone. Violent nationalism and racism is on the rise in every country. Not every hero has to be the one who saves the world and discovers the secret to victory, but when even B-movies are working hard to include societal critiques, it’s especially disappointing to see movies with resources miss the mark so completely.

There is a different version of "Bird Box" that could have worked better; there are probably several. In mine, the kids die... and maybe the adults learn to see their fears without wanting to kill themselves.