By: Steve Pulaski
It's always unfortunate when a film with a very similar premise to another bigger, maybe more successful film comes out so closely on the latter's heels. When the trailer for Bird Box dropped several months ago, it was almost instantly compared to John Krasinski's A Quiet Place on the surface-level. While Krasinski's superb thriller focused on a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by monsters who hunted by sound, Bird Box centers around monsters and spirits who claim its victims once they expose their eyes to it. Once you get past that similarity and realize the approaches of the films are very different in both tone and execution, like most films with comparable premises, you can see how they operate autonomously and effectively on their own terms.
Don't get caught up and nitpick the comparisons between both films; appreciate them both as they are. And in the present, appreciate Bird Box for what it is — a thoughtfully written, emotionally intelligent thriller with a deep understanding of what makes contemporary genre-works connect on a deeper level than expected. In what could've been an otherwise passable, simply entertaining picture with respectable ambiance and good performances is instead a work with real weight and gravitas in all the right areas. Where A Quiet Place greatly emphasized the suspenseful atmosphere of operating in a world where one couldn't make the slightest sound without risking death, Bird Box ties itself to the connections we make with both family and strangers in times of unimaginable peril. One approach doesn't have to be weighted stronger than the other. They both result in damn-good films.
The film follows two distinct timelines, opening with Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and two young children, referred to only by "Boy" (Julian Edwards) and "Girl" (Vivien Lyra Blair), navigating a small riverboat on a rocky river. All three are blindfolded, and Malorie explicitly instructs the children never to take their blindfolds off. This is the present, and throughout the first and second act, the film cuts back to give us context that the Earth is being overrun by unidentified monsters that, if looked at with the naked eye, will make you kill yourself in a matter of moments.
Malorie first encounters these "creatures" during a routine hospital visit for her pregnancy. Her and her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson), speed out of the hospital as soon as they see individuals start to go mad, and see the roadways flooded with mass crowds of people frantically running in every direction, some killing themselves, some trying to save friends and family, and some simply trying to avoid several car accidents. Malorie manages to escape, while her sister isn't so lucky, and takes shelter in a large home owned by Greg (BD Wong). Greg's home is filled with other scared and confused survivors including Tom (Trevante Rhodes), an Iraq War veteran, Doug (John Malkovich), Greg's pessimistic neighbor, Charlie (Lil Rel Howery), an employee at a local grocery store, among others (not to mention Machine Gun Kelly). The terrified group must do their best to overcome their very natural fears and work together to savage food, water, and other supplies while boarding up windows and doors in order to protect themselves from folks on the outside. They do let one woman in, however — Olympia (Danielle Macdonald, Patti Cake$), who is pregnant and fearful, as she's alone and without anyone for the first time in her adult life.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer (writer of the Oscar-nominated Arrival, along with the writer/director of the Paul Walker thrillerHours) interweaves both timelines rather smoothly, still managing to achieve great suspense in both respective points in the story. There's an entrapping element of being cooped up in a spacious, albeit unfamiliar estate with several strangers that Heisserer brilliantly exploits, at the same time continuously reverting back to the larger fear that is in order to go anywhere, or perhaps survive, one must forfeit their sight by shielding their eyes. It's a haunting dilemma that keeps you at the mercy of a premise you were quite possibly skeptical of from the moment you heard it. Heisserer makes it work splendidly.
It also helps that he has such a commendable cast to bring the raw emotional strengths of his screenplay to life. Like the accomplished and unparalleled actress she is, Sandra Bullock throws herself into a role that requires conviction. Malorie is a woman who internalizes her fears of motherhood and the unfamiliar, which results in her exterior being cold and emotionally detached. When she's navigating an ostensibly endless river, with hopes there's a fortress of some kind at the end of it, with two children in tow, she barks orders at them, notwithstanding the fact she doesn't even give either of them names. Bullock humanizes this character as someone we can admire for her resilience, but don't always like even when, like the children, we begrudgingly concede she's doing the right thing in some aspect.
Trevante Rhodes, who you'll remember from the terrific film Moonlight, adds to the laudable sentimental heft of the film by matching Bullock's level of intensity in his own performance. The two share some dynamite moments together from a chemistry perspective, and not in the classically romantic sense; the best comes when the two are arguing over how best to raise the children when socialization is an impossibility. Malorie condemns Tom's desire to tell the children stories of climbing trees and playing with other young kids because, in a realistic sense, both Boy and Girl will likely never experience that level of normalcy. Tom combats with the notion that kids — or, in a broader sense, people — need to be encouraged to hope even in the face of total impossibility. It doesn't matter if Malorie's kids will never experience the things both her and Tom did as kids; the notion they might loans them that extra motivation to keep going when navigating an ominous, lonely woods, implored not to look at anything.
Heisserer adapted the film from the 2014 Josh Malerman novel of the same name, and keeps many of the themes and symbolism in place. He doesn't conveniently address the creatures, but does drop enough hints and tidbits of intrigue that are cogent enough to piece together without forcing the viewer to engage in mental gymnastics in order to garner even minimal enjoyment out of the story. He and director Susanne Bier, who does a marvelous job conducting the story on a large, far-and-wide scale, make it clear early on that thrills and tension, though consistent, are only a piece of this delicious pie of a movie. Without the great emotional stakes and character development, little makes Bird Box distinguishable from thrillers with a less engrossing premise.
If we're still going to play the comparison game, Bird Box actually has more in common with Frank Darabont's (still) under-appreciated The Mist, and that's a lofty comparison in my book. Although I semi-frequently refer back to the melancholic conclusion of the film as a bold artistic choice in a country that loves their endings happy, I'm rather on-board with Heisserer's move to have occasional instances of beauty and optimism cut through the gloom of the story. Maybe I'm getting soft. Maybe talented screenwriters and filmmakers are becoming more aware of how to better employ such things themselves.