I will admit to being a bit hesitant to watch Bird Box. It is not as though I expected it to be bad, many Netflix originals are top notch and the cast sounded terrific. It was more that, between the hype and the fact that I knew I would constantly be comparing it to A Quiet Place (a favorite of mine from last year) that I wouldn’t exactly be able to allow myself to enjoy it. Still, I attempted to clear my mind as much as possible and give it ago.
I first want to note that given the nature of how the deaths almost universally occur (suicide) the movie itself and possibly even this Impressions might be upsetting for some. I tried to avoid any details, but people should know going in (especially into the movie) what they are getting into.
For those that might not know, Bird Box was released late last year on Netflix. It is a horror movie starring Sandra Bullock as she lives in a world invaded by unspecified beings that cause people to kill themselves when they look at them. The movie starts with Malorie (Bullock) floating down the river with two small children, then flashes back and forth between their journey and how Malorie got there.
It is not a bad premise for a movie, and once again the cast is pretty amazing with John Malkovich also playing a role and many great supporting characters. There is also something very alarming about the very idea. The movie uses the intensity of forced blindness well with the never-ending challenge of making it through a world that you can no longer see. How do you get food? Change shelters? Simple day to day stuff. It is an effective idea that makes for many tense moments.
The problem that I had with the movie as far as the fear element is that a lot of the suspense is lost since we know Malorie somehow ends up from a pregnant survivor early on, to responsible for two young children on her own. It means we know that her pregnancy happens, that her child survives, somehow she picks up another, and everyone else dies. This does a lot of damage to many of the more intense scenes. Any time there is a set up that someone might die, you pretty much know it will happen. The risk-reward balance is thrown because there is no “well maybe this person might make it out and survive with Malorie.”
While it is safe to assume in most horror movies that if a deadly set up is coming that death will happen, there is still an element of suspense and potential surprise that is completely lost in the choice to flash back and forth between the start and 5 years later.
There are also issues with the characters. Malorie and about two other characters are the only ones with any notable personality. While the secondary characters around them might have a moment or two, they are mostly one-dimensional canon fodder for death scenes and frustration for Malorie and Douglas (Malkovich). It also doesn’t help that Malorie and Douglas themselves are so insanely boxed into specific stereotypes that they also cause more sighs than genuine moments. Throughout the whole movie, there were about three moments where I felt that focus on developing the characters really happened and succeeded.
Once again we are talking about the horror genre, so this isn’t really a deal breaker. I mean I love slasher trash I am hardly one that can complain about “underdeveloped” characters. However, Bird Box is trying to be more, so it’s a little disappointing that it fails at this. Especially since I am such a good character junky.
Despite this, the movie is still pretty solid. It does have intense moments, even with the suspense slightly shaken. Also, we don’t know the outcome of the journey for Malorie and the kids so their moments are not ones we can be sure about. The concept of the monsters is rather cool, and the fact that we are only given hints as to what it is that the people see that drives them to kill themselves is unsettling. Bird Box has its share of incredible scenes that will stick with you, but I just wish the meat between those scenes was more substantial.
I will also admit that my gearing up to compare it to A Quiet Place was entirely unfair. Yes, that thought did cross my mind a few times while watching, but they are different enough movies that it did not need to happen. A Quiet Place requiring silence and this movie require blindness puts them in a similar neighborhood maybe, but then Halloween and Friday the 13th would also be in the same neighborhood (and probably even closer). It sort of showed a bit of filmgoer shallowness on my part that I jumped to assuming how similar they would be. There are a lot of crossovers, but not so much that obsessing over it was needed.
So bottom line? Horror fans, especially those that prefer slow paced suspense over gory slashers, will likely enjoy this movie. I am hard pressed to call it great with all my difficulties with it, but it was good. It was entertaining, had a few scares, and well worth a watch (and possibly even more than one). I think that the idea had slightly more potential than the execution, and it makes me curious how this movie stacks up to the book. I will also say that those that still need “proof” that Netflix is making good films can consider this. A lot worse movies were released in theaters last year, we need to move forward with our ideas of how film releases work.
Give it a go, but maybe don’t expect the world.
On a quick personal note, I want to address an issue with this movie, but it will contain spoilers, please stop reading if you’d rather not see them
Bird Box has been called out since it’s release about how it deals with the issue of mental illness. The fact that the beings make people kill themselves is unsettling and might be triggering for some, but that’s not what I want to talk about.
During the course of the movie, several times Malorie comes across others that have “looked” but not been driven to kill themselves, but rather be helpers for the invasion. While this adds a degree of fear, the explanation for who these people are is troubling.
They are, as far as we know, people with mental health issues.
Now the movie does seem to do a great deal to say it’s not just people with depression or bipolar disorder, hell Douglas is clearly suffering from something, and the same could likely be said for Malorie. Rather people who are criminally insane. The first person encountered actually admits he is from a hospital and later a gang moving around are clearly not right.
It is a bit problematic that the only time the movie addresses explicitly mental health is to say “crazy people can be used by the monsters to make the rest of us kill ourselves” the implication is… unsettling. It becomes worse when Malorie is attacked on the river by a man that we have no frame of reference for being more than an average guy who maybe just suffered from depression or something similar.
There have been a variety of reactions to this, and mine is mostly on the filmmaker’s side. I don’t believe that they meant to imply anything about those of us that suffer from mental health disorders. I do think that a delicate subject was broached and could have had a bit more care taken with it however especially when already making a movie about a being that causes most of the population to kill themselves.
I think the lack of further explanation was denied to give the movie a larger feeling of mystery and suspense, which I appreciate. It did, however, make some of those watching feel uncomfortable, and in some cases even judged.
I don’t have a soapbox with this issue, I think that it’s nuanced and there are reasons to be bothered and reasons to say “you know what the movie isn’t really judging mental illness” so each of us will react how we do. I did feel that as someone who openly discusses my mental health problems that I would be remiss if I did not at least acknowledge that this was something people are responding to.
In the end, it wasn’t enough to offend me or even be a deal breaker, but it did stand out to me and gave me pause.