Film Review: Strong Performances Buoy Flawed but Fascinating “Bird Box”

Film poster: “Bird Box”

Bird Box (Susanne Bier, 2018) 2½ out of 4 stars.

What an interesting year for the post-apocalyptic senses! First there was A Quiet Place, in which the slightest sound could potentially bring on disaster, forcing people into near-mute silence. Now comes Bird Box, in which the only way to survive is to avert one’s eyes, most frequently via blindfolds. Things just keep going from bad to worse, as at least one can walk around relatively unhindered in the earlier scenario. How is one supposed to find one’s way in a blind fog?

That, indeed, is the challenge in this initially fascinating, and later frustrating, new sci-fi disaster film, from Danish director Susanne Bier (In a Better World) – adapted from the eponymous 2014 book by Josh Malerman – which starts airing today on Netflix. Sandra Bullock (Ocean’s Eight) stars as Malorie, a woman who finds out she is pregnant just as the world comes to an end. Something – a malevolent force – invades our planet, causing all who gaze upon its immaterial form to immediately attempt suicide. Look away before discovery, or never look at all, and there is no danger (except for the persuasive whispers in one’s mind, urging one to look, look, look!), but once seen, the force acts, and all is lost.

We begin in the aftermath, with a sudden departure. Malorie and two young children, a boy and a girl (both hers? twins? we’ll find out …), flee their refuge, blindfolds on, hopping in a canoe to head downstream, where help (they hope) awaits. We then flashback to how we got here, and cut between past and present until the two narratives collide. We watch as a wave of despair washes over those not wise enough to turn away, among them relatives, friends and strangers.

Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson in BIRD BOX ©Netflix

Before long Malorie is holed up in a house with a handful of strangers, each coping in his or her own way. They get along when needed, but soon some act stupidly, or bravely, and die. One of the things they eventually learn is that birds, for some reason, are able to detect the shadow creatures causing all the destruction (hence the title), so Malorie makes sure to  always have a cage (or a box, hence the title) with some winged companions inside. Slowly, as we jump back and forth between our two timelines, we learn how one set of actions led to current consequences. It’s an often-effective thriller, though marred by increasingly expositional dialogue and questionable character decisions. Still, for much of its length, Bird Box remains frightening, holding our attention in blind terror.

Poor Bullock, though, as solid a performer as she is, has to emote and spell out the stakes for us in poorly written speeches that take away from her strong, charismatic presence. Fortunately, a stellar supporting cast helps her along, including Tom Hollander (Amazon’s Doctor Thorne), Danielle Macdonald (Dumplin’), John Malkovich (Bullet Head), Sarah Paulson (Blue Jay), Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), BD Wong (Jurassic World) and others. It’s the ensemble that makes it work, and once we’re down to just Malorie and the kids (as cute as they are), the film falters a bit. Still, there’s enough inventive oddness in the movie to keep us watching. Oh, wait, no, quick … don’t … argh … the sadness …

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic here at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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