45 million viewers can’t be wrong. Right? What’s more interesting about Netlfix’s announcement of the multitudes flocking to see Sandra Bullock shield her eyes from the apocalypse is that previous big events on their part were accompanied by no such swagger. So I guess Bright or Adam Sandler’s latest just didn’t cut it to the same magnitude? Doubtless the streaming giant will be commissioning more end-of-the-world fare tout suite. Possibly starring Will Smith and Adam Sandler, together at last.
The success of The Walking Dead made it incredibly obvious, if that was even necessary, that there are huge potential audiences for the inevitable collapse of civilisation, provided it’s occurring while ensconced in one’s living room. But also that it gets stale quite quickly, if you don’t have anything really distinctive to throw into the mix. Bird Box is well made and acted, but all it does is remind you of other, often better, movies of its ilk.
Based on Josh Malerman’s 2014 novel of the same name, it’s notable that the author himself was concerned about post-apocalyptic comparisons that might be drawn with The Road and The Happening when he first thrashed it out. And they’re just the tip of the “We’re all doomed” iceberg. As usual with these scenarios, rhyme or reason for the outbreak or affliction isn’t eventually imparted; it just is. Which can be a boon or a bust, depending on how fast and loose you choose to be with the rules of your world. In Malerman’s case, and the adaptation by Eric Heisserer (Arrival), I found them increasingly tenuous. If your MacGuffin turns out to be a magic wand, you’re sure to lose goodwill.
So the nebulous creatures – real but intangible Lovecraftian demons, Gaia fighting back indiscriminately since she’s taking the fauna with her, mass hysteria or “a classic biowarfare signature”; take your pick – not only ply those who see them with visions of the dead and inspire them to suicide, but they also handily go to work on the insane, who rather than off themselves obligingly and uniformly become zealots, inspired to open the eyes of those resisting such enlightenment (because all mad people are an amorphous whole).
In pursuing this mission, as we discover, there’s no end to the ingenuity and acumen displayed, from the simple luring of river travellers, to driving around in cars in packs, to hatching such nefarious schemes as posing as an escapee from others like them (Tom Hollander’s Gary). It’s cumulatively rather silly, unfortunately. Certainly, I began to lose patience with the picture following Gary’s arrival, and Hollander is usually a massive boon to anything. I can only assume that, when applied to the animal kingdom, rabid dogs are now intent on digging up as many moles as possible in order to force them to see the light.
It’s much better to keep these things simple, particularly when your characters are actively interrogating the rule book (digitised images are no defence, but GPS in a blacked-out car is fine). The Walking Dead, notably, opted not to explain the outbreak of flesh-eating undead, ultimately to its detriment, as it’s stuck on a perpetual reset arc that renders its serialised nature void (I gave up after Season 5). Bird Box utilises numerous signatures from the zombie genre, most notably holed-up survivors whose numbers are whittled down by being really fucking stupid; the opening also recalls, on a less exhausting level, the mayhem of the outbreak in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake (those first twenty minutes are still the director’s finest third of an hour).
It also recalls, inevitably, A Quiet Place, in its focus on one of the senses as a source of susceptibility (another movie that breaks down under the weight of its rules, but which is ultimately more satisfying by virtue of sustained breathlessness). We’ve even had a prior apocalyptic sight-impaired movie, in 2008’s Blindness, although that one played up the sociological commentary to the point of nausea.
Heisserer appears to have been fairly faithful to Malerman’s novel, so one might legitimately argue the faults are with the source material. At one point, a budding writer – “Another novel I won’t have to read” says Malkovich in full acidic mode, upon his demise – warns that the cast are in the endgame (“Humanity has been judged and found guilty”). Which, unfortunately, tends to be enough for his kind of thing. He has added a love story between Bullock’s pregnant Malorie and Trevante Rhodes’ Tom, which also leads to the latter getting a de rigueur, kick-ass heroic death, taking out a handful of the insane as Malorie flees.
One might argue their romance underlines the emotional pulse of the picture, Malorie doing whatever she must to protect her children (Boy and Girl) – some commentaries have suggested she’s embracing blind faith to get there, but I’d like to hope that’s a little too on the nose to have been on the mind of anyone involved – right down to the atypically upbeat ending (with Pruitt Taylor Vince as a nice guy!)
Alas, the whole is so self-serious and “important”, it exposes itself to ridicule when Malorie embarks on a blindfold rapids ride, akin to someone dared to risk life and limb in Jackass (you can readily imagine Malerman going “Now, what would be incredibly difficult for a blind person to navigate, to the point only a complete idiot would try it?”)
Bullock, a sprightly 54 and all hopped-up on botox, commands in the lead role, lent capable support by the likes of Malkovich, Rosa Salazar (the upcoming Alita: Battle Angel), BD Wong and Jacki Weaver. Bullock and Sarah Paulson are particularly good as sisters, so it’s a shame they’re together so briefly. Director Susann Bier’s never less than accomplished either (although, she does seem to use that one blindfold POV shot again and again and again), riding high on the success of The Night Manager.
Nevertheless, the self-importance of Bird Box defeats it in the end. It behaves as if it’s the first movie with a take on this kind of material, when really, it’s just the fairly meek-and-mild latest. I actually rather wish it had brandished an accompanying sense of schlocky fun; I’d sooner The Happening’s patent absurdity over this any day.