Were it not for the presence of Sandra Bullock, Bird Box might have passed by with very little attention. A star of her size popping up on your Netflix menu, in a film you’ve never heard of, grabs your attention. Indeed, it’s grabbed so much attention that the film was seen by over 45 million Netflix customers in a week. Bullock is more than enough reason to watch, and just one part of a luxuriously good cast, even if the film itself is scrabbling through very familiar post-apocalyptic alien ground.
Bird Box is immediately redolent of two other, better, 2018 movies. It has shades of Annihilation, in its surreal mood, largely unexplained alien creatures and a team turning on each other as danger heightens. It’s even more similar to A Quiet Place, with a twist on the same gimmick. Where A Quiet Place presented aliens that would kill you if you spoke, Bird Box gives us aliens who will drive you to kill yourself if you look at them, so instead of keeping your voice down you have to keep your eyes covered.
It begins quite spectacularly with Malorie (Bullock) shouting at two children to obey her every word or they’ll die. They, understandably, look terrified. It then cuts to five years earlier, with Malorie unexcitedly pregnant and on a doctor’s visit with her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson). On their drive home they see chaos, as people deliberately crash their cars, throw themselves into fires and in other miscellaneous ways end their lives, under the power of some unseen force. We then jump between timelines of Malorie with those hectored children and Malorie and a small band of survivors trapped in a house working out what on earth is going on and how they might survive it.
Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) keeps her direction calm and clear. While the film is creepy it’s not really scary. The focus is much more on people’s reaction to the presence of the monsters, rather than on the monsters themselves. Bullock makes clear that Malorie is overcompensating for her fear, or acting like a cold-hearted survivor to try to keep herself from falling apart. She is the only actor who gets a full character to work with. Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight) is second lead, but his character really just boils down to ‘decent man’. There’s little nuance to him. John Malkovich, Jackie Weaver and Tom Hollander are all actors with limitless skills, but Eric Heisserer’s script gives them rote characters to work with: the angry bully, the peacemaker, and the lunatic nobody should have let into the house, respectively. The house is crammed with clichés.
Memorable set-pieces are scant – an attempted escape in a car with no windows is a high point – and mostly Bier is guiding us competently toward an ending we know is coming, because it’s how these things always end. Its premise is solid but it doesn’t have much fun playing with its possibilities. More than anything, this is a display of what movie stars can do. Bullock’s time bomb performance, always tamping down the scream she clearly wants to let out, is riveting. The film she gifts it to is not much to see.