Bird Box movie review: Sandra Bullock’s Netflix thriller refuses to be caged in
Director - Susanne Bier
Cast - Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Rosa Salazar, Jacki Weaver, Sarah Paulson, Lil Rel Howrey, Tom Hollander, Colson Baker
Rating - 3.5/5
Bird Box lays out its ground rules early. It has its star - the Oscar-winning Sandra Bullock - look directly into the camera in an attention-seeking close-up, and in its opening scene explain to us what the world has become.
Bullock plays Malorie, a woman who has somehow survived the apocalypse and has with her two young children. She calls them Boy and Girl, perhaps in an effort to not develop emotional attachment. They’re about to undertake the most dangerous journey of their lives, she tells them. They will need to obey her every command, otherwise they’d die. They must never open their eyes, even if they hear a loud noise, because if they do, they’d die. As a blindfold is pulled over their eyes, Boy and Girl nod silently, and if the movie’s been successful in its exposition, so will you.
Watch the Bird Box trailer here
Bird Box has been written by the Oscar-nominated writer of Arrival, Eric Heisserer, who gives it a unique structure, and as is made abundantly clear in that opening, also finds clever ways of communicating vital exposition about the origins of the apocalypse. The central idea in Bird Box very similar to what we saw in M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening and John Krasinski’s recent thriller, A Quiet Place - although Heisserer has stressed that the book Bird Box is based on was published before A Quiet Place; in fact, its earliest draft was written even before The Happening.
Certain… ‘creatures’… have arrived on Earth, and looking at them with a naked eye compels the observer to commit suicide. After making landfall in Russia, the monsters arrive in America, which responds immediately by shutting down its borders - a statement on the current political situation that speaks volumes thanks to the subtle manner in which it is made.
But perhaps the most prominent narrative choice Heisserer makes - and this is true of the source novel as well - is by setting most of the movie in flashback. After the stakes have been revealed in that opening scene, we are quickly taken back five years, when Malorie was a reclusive artist with social anxiety. On a trip to the doctor with her sister - when we first meet Malorie she is pregnant with a child she clearly did not plan for, nor appears to want - all hell breaks loose when people start harming themselves. Malorie’s survival instinct kicks into gear - the first of many important character moments that develop her into the mother she is so afraid of becoming - and she hightails it out of there, ending up in the home of a cantankerous old man named Douglas (played by John Malkovich).
It is in this house that Bird Box spends the majority of its first couple of acts. It isn’t the post-apocalyptic thriller that you’d perhaps have expected it to be, but a survival drama and even a locked-room mystery.
By trapping half-a-dozen contrasting personalities - maybe a nod to the title - inside a closed environment, during such a high-pressure situation, is a nifty way to add drama to the proceedings, and root the high-concept science-fiction premise in real human emotion. And what a murderer’s row of talent Danish director Susanne Bier has assembled. Joining Bullock and Malkovich in the ensemble are Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes, Animal Kingdom’s gangster matriarch Jacki Weaver, the great Sarah Paulson, Rosa Salazar from the upcoming Alita: Battle Angel, Get Out’s Lil Rel Howrey, the rapper/actor Machine Gun Kelly, and an unrecognisable Parminder Nagra (from Bend It Like Beckham).
But this is Bullock’s movie. We’ve seen her carry an entire film on her shoulders before, as recently as her Academy Award-winning turn in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, and as in that film, her character in Bird Box is confronted by the complex notion of motherhood. She’s the rare actor who can switch - on many occasions mid-scene - from fierce intensity to incredible warmth. It’s true that Heisserer’s screenplay gives her a meaty arc to work with, but her performance is the biggest draw for the movie.
As we form connections with the characters, the film intercuts these flashbacks with the present - Bullock and the two kids making their great getaway across a perilous river. Rapids are approaching, and the only way to navigate them, she tells the children, is by looking. It’s going to have to be one of them. And then we cut back.
Bier, meanwhile, lends a steady guiding hand to the boat. Bird Box is unlike anything that she, even in her unendingly diverse filmography, has tackled before. She stages several nail-biting set pieces - nothing like what Krasinski achieved in A Quiet Place, though - that are inserted at just the right moments. One in particular, that involves driving ‘blind’ with the help of a GPS, is quite terrific.
Of the supporting cast, Trevante Rhodes brings a much-needed emotional stability to the high-strung proceedings, as well as a strong physical presence. But it is Malkovich as the endearingly terrible Douglas whose performance cranes its neck above the others’. He almost gives the impression of having improvised many of his own lines, because I could swear the last time I heard a movie character use the insult ‘simpleton’, it was played by Malkovich.
For all its taut thrills and ambitious ideas, Bird Box ends up trapping itself into the same cage that ensnared other high-concept sci-fi thrillers such as the forgotten Nicolas Cage movie, Knowing, and even the recent Alex Garland film, Annihilation. Its third act is far too grandiose in its themes, and an unexpected change of pace from the rather lean story we’d seen so far. But when it soars it soars.