Netflix’s horror thriller Bird Box opens with Sandra Bullock’s character Malorie cruelly threatening two small children. “Listen to me,” she says. “We’re going on the trip now; it’s going to be rough. If you hear something in the woods, you tell me. If you hear something in the water, you tell me, but under no circumstance are you allowed to take off your blindfold. If you do, I will hurt you.” Cold and calculated, Malorie is a woman driven by the need to survive — and she’s done so for years, by the skin of her teeth.
Zipping back five years into the past, we discover how Malorie ended up in this apocalyptic hell. A pregnant artist who doesn’t seem to have the time or the emotional range for the baby that she is carrying, Malorie’s world collapses as a suicide-inducing plague comes cracking through the earth bringing humanity to its knees.
After witnessing a woman crack her skull in half by bashing it against a pane glass window, and seeing her sister (Sarah Paulson)’s pupils dilate in fear before she endangers both Malorie’s life and her own — Malorie finds herself pregnant, alone and without any connection to the life she once knew. Stumbling into an open door off the street, she finds herself amongst an eclectic group of survivors.
Amongst them are Tom (Trevante Rhodes), a determined and quick-thinking Army veteran-turned-construction worker; Douglas (John Malkovich), a grating alcoholic who blames Malorie for his wife’s death; Charlie (Lil Rel Howery), a conspiracy theory loving-supermarket worker who is gone from the film almost as soon as he appears; and Greg (BD Wong), the owner of the house. There is also a slew of other less memorable characters.
Though they have little information as to what’s happened, the house’s inhabitants soon determine that going outside —looking out of their windows or inviting any new person into their bubble means certain death. A pandemic of creatures is on the loose and though we never see them —we can certainly feel their presence. Decomposing bodies litter the streets and there is a persistent rustling of the leaves on the trees. To say things look ominous would be an understatement. Thankfully, birds screech every time the monsters are present, a warning the humans need to survive.
Sensory deprivation is essential to making the Susanne Bier horror film work. Unfortunately, because much of the film is set inside a home where there is little to fear — the meat of Bird Box is a jumbled mess with a tangle of characters the audience can’t connect to. It also has a strange comedic through-line that knocks the tone of the narrative off balance. At one point, Malkovich’s character screams at a soft-spoken pregnant woman, Olympia (Patti Cake$‘ Danielle MacDonald) calling her a simpleton. It was supposed to be a dark moment taut with panic, but it unwittingly caused cackling. Many of the characters don’t have backstories or any notable dialogue, so when they do meet their demise —this is a horror film after all—they aren’t exactly missed. In fact, as the house begins to empty, it feels as if the sleepover from hell has gotten a bit more bearable.
Despite the film’s missteps, the friendship between Tom and Malorie anchor Bird Box.As usual, Bullock is fantastic as the quick-thinking Malorie, who fashions the film’s namesake, a box of small birds, as an alarm system to notify them when the monsters are near. However, it’s Tom’s presence that adds warmth, empathy, and compassion to the film. Caring and gentle — the Iraq war veteran uses much of his training and leadership skills to keep the house, and its occupants in line. Rhodes is engaging and charismatic. Often the voice of reason, it’s Tom’s resilience and determination that keep pressing the film forward including a nail-biting sequence where a few of the housemates venture out for food and supplies.
The scenes involving the children —aptly named Boy and Girl (Julian Edwards and Vivien Lyra Blair)—are also extremely impactful albeit gut-wrenching to watch. The 5-year-olds spend the majority of their scenes blindfolded and trembling, clutching on to one another as they head down icy river rapids. It’s these scenes that recenter Bird Box after its muddled middle. Still, some of the longer sequences in the film could have been edited down which would have allowed the film to meet its full potential.
Though there were certain moments when the film was unnerving, Bird Box doesn’t have as impactful as a punch because we never get to see the monsters. With the one true horror element unseen and mostly unheard, we are left with a ton of gore and little of the suspense that the film’s trailer promised. Though the premise of the film is intriguing, the most gripping moments in Bird Box happen in the first and last act. Bird Box should be spine-chilling — and a few sequences in the film do measure up to author Josh Malerman’s writing. However, in the end, much of Bird Box makes you wish you were watching John Krasinski’s much more emotionally unnerving, A Quiet Place instead.
Bird Box will debut on Netflix, Friday, Dec. 21, 2018
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide