Director: Susanne Bier
Writer: Eric Heisserer
Producer: Dylan Clark, Chris Morgan, Clayton Townsend
Stars: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, Rosa Salazar, Danielle Macdonald, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, Colson Baker, BD Wong, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich
In an apocalyptic near future where opening your eyes outdoors can lead to madness, a mother fights to find safety for two small children.
I get it. For one thing, we live in a world where we often feel the need to reductively describe things in “it’s like” terms.
And yes, “Bird Box” features a parent struggling to protect her children in a post-apocalyptic near future where they’ll be attacked by unseen creatures if they open their eyes outdoors. Meanwhile, “A Quiet Place” (review here) features parents struggling to protect their children in a post-apocalyptic near future where they’ll be attacked by unknown creatures if they make noise.
I won’t say the similarities end there, because they don’t. But looking at “Bird Box” solely through a lens comparing it to “A Quiet Place” kneecaps the movie’s merits as sharply produced, well-acted drama. Try caging it in that enticing simile and the distraction may cause one to miss many unique thoughts provoked by its themes. Simply see it for the standalone thriller it is and entertainment comes easier.
Based on the novel by Josh Malerman, “Bird Box” sets a stage where unknown, unseen entities have assumed dominance over the world. Take one look at their hypnotic presence and your mind will be driven mad, resulting in a sudden compulsion to commit suicide or cause some other sort of chaos.
Amidst the maelstrom of mass panic, pregnant Malorie (Sandra Bullock) holes up in a house with a variety pack of other scrambling survivors. John Malkovich puts his typically scintillating spin on an irascible a-hole archetype (hello Harry Cooper). BD Wong plays to his tailored strengths too, briefly flashing his self-assured smile as the neighborly voice of calm. Lil Rel Howery offers comic relief as a likable lug who finds the heroism hidden in his cowardly shell. Tom Hollander fits the bill of an erratic latecomer who cannot be trusted and Trevante Rhodes has the handsomeness to stir Malorie’s romantic interest. They’re all cookies cut from flattened dough, but the cast’s collective charisma amply flavors the typecast tastes.
“Bird Box” intercuts the immediate aftermath of the unexplained epidemic with “Five Years Later” flashes of Malorie fighting to find sanctuary for two small children. The film fills the blanks in between as it boomerangs between the two timelines. The movie thus molds metaphors from the ongoing evolution of interpersonal relationships as Malorie is challenged to reconsider her “I don’t need anyone else in my life” attitude.
As emotionally engaging as “Bird Box” becomes, its story undoubtedly works better as a book. Even at two full hours and change, the film runs out of room to adequately arc every development, conflict, and personality toward a totally resonant crescendo.
If we’re still making “A Quiet Place” references, “Bird Box” widens its similar narrative with more places and people, yet staffs its vast kitchen with more cooks than there are aprons. Malkovich’s initial hatred toward Malorie based on blame for his wife’s death fizzles quickly, replaced by ordinary, angry old man ire. Malorie’s constant crisis clearly involves her reluctance to accept responsibility as a matronly figure, but tips toward audience condescension with its ongoing obviousness. Then there are those like married couple Jason and Samantha (if you’ve seen the film, I’ll bet you don’t know who I’m talking about), whose single scene is two minutes “Bird Box” could do without.
The parts of those arcs that do make it on screen see themselves capably carried by the packed roster of top talent. Malorie and her sister have one of those sibling relationships where they regularly relate to each other with insults of endearment. Bantering barbs like theirs can only come from a screenwriter, and are sweetly sarcastic to the point of sickening. Only enigmatic actresses like Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson can pull such material from the brink of annoyance with their abundant affability, which is a thankfully contagious trait across the cast.
Young Julian Edwards and particularly Vivien Lyra Blair are gutwrenchingly great as the two little children. The excruciating tension that stems from seeing them face constant danger can have even the blackest hearts clawing at their couches while screaming at the screen.
Forced to circle back to the overdone comparison I’d hoped to avoid, “A Quiet Place” may be the leaner, meaner, more fully satisfying post-apocalyptic parent parable. But even in its Reader’s Digest format of chopped up chapters, “Bird Box” forges formidable fiction fueled by its star-powered engine.
Review Score: 75