Bird Box” (Netflix) is the latest in the trend of apocalyptic thrillers where the end times arrive in a bizarre and sketchily explained fashion, following “It Comes at Night,” “A Quiet Place” and the “Cloverfield” trilogy. It’s easy to call this the visual answer to the audio-based “A Quiet Place.” There, creatures hunt by their sense of hearing; here, the malevolent force invades people’s brains through their visual cortex. It’s the childlike notion of hiding under the covers made into a motion picture: If you can’t see the monster, you’re fine.
“Bird Box” is written by Eric Heisserer, who also penned “Lights Out,” in which you’re safe when the lights are on. So this film, based on Josh Malerman’s 2014 novel, is the opposite of that.
But Stephen King’s “The Mist” is what first popped into my mind, and indeed, a grocery store – where a vague menace awaits outside — is one of “Bird Box’s” set pieces. Like so many King stories, “Bird Box” is about strangers thrown together in a crisis, and director Susanne Bier’s film has the advantage of a cast so loaded that it definitively ends the era where films that skip theaters should be met with suspicion. This is a theatrical film as much as any of those I mentioned above; it’s just that Netflix made it.
Sandra Bullock plays Malorie, a woman so self-absorbed that she doesn’t notice when the apocalypse arrives. Her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson), turns on the news to show her the mass suicide phenomenon sweeping the globe. Bier does a nice job of illustrating how quickly – and almost casually – this disaster alters civilization.
Although they are mostly “types” rather than people, I did enjoy the group of survivors that comes together at the home of the altruistic Greg (“Jurassic Park’s” BD Wong, getting a refreshing non-villain role). There’s drunken, self-admitted a**h*** Douglas (John Malkovich); kind-hearted but soft Olympia (Danielle Macdonald); grocery worker and budding novelist Charlie (Lil Rel Howery); and rock-solid dude Tom (Trevante Rhodes, who I recently saw in “The Predator”).
As the obligatory horror deaths mount, I cared in some cases and barely noticed in others. The scene-stealers are two kids, played by Vivien Lyra Blair and Julian Edwards. Their characters, both 4 years old, are named Girl and Boy – this is Malorie’s way of preparing them (and herself) for survival in this harsh world.
I realized by the end – through these two youngsters – that “Bird Box” is not a pure horror film, but rather a character piece. On those grounds, it did leave me misty-eyed, I admit. But I’m not sure if it holds up to scrutiny. Could anyone really go four years without naming their kids? Someone who resorts to that tactic to keep their emotional distance is trying too hard to show how hard they are trying.
Analyzed as a horror film, “Bird Box” is tense and compelling, but it isn’t scary. It also has a “Blair Witch Project” bug (or feature, if this is your jam): It creates tension through the visuals, audio and performances, while not employing a creature effects department.
And as a thematic commentary on … something … I don’t know if it works. Granted, horror films need not all be social commentaries like “Get Out.” Indeed, the aforementioned “Lights Out” is a fun little riff playing on fears of the dark. Still, the presence of a star like Bullock and a respected actor like Malkovich – along with a beefy two-hour run time — gives me the nagging feeling that “Bird Box” should be making a clever, grand point about something. It’s a fun little horror riff. But it hints at promises it can’t deliver once we remove the blindfold.