Netflix UK film review: Bird Box
Ivan Radford | On 20, Dec 2018
Director: Susanne Bier
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, Tom Hollander, Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich
Watch Bird Box online in the UK: Netflix UK
“If you look, you will die.” That’s Malorie (Sandra Bullock) to her kids in Bird Box, Netflix’s new horror thriller. It’s as simple as a premise can get, and the film works at its best on that visceral level.
After Malorie’s initial instruction to two alarmed children, we flash back to this apocalyptic epidemic’s innocuous beginnings, as a plague appears to sweep Siberia, causing a string of impulsive suicides. It seems like no big deal to Malorie and her sister (Sarah Paulson), until what they’ve seen on the news starts occuring on their doorstep, causing people to do all manner of disturbing, violent things – sparking a parade of window-smashing, gun-shooting, knife-wielding nastiness. One moment that sees someone voluntarily climb into a blazing car is genuinely horrifying.
Fast forward a few years and the human race has been largely wiped out, with only pockets of survivors existing – and Malorie and her sprogs are about to venture out of hiding to find the nearest sanctuary. But to do so, they need to navigate a forest, a river and whatever’s out there that’s causing all this. The result is a nailbiting sequence that strips the line between life and death down to a single, elemental act – and, in that sense, the movie inevitably earns comparisons with A Quiet Place. Yet it’s an unfair comparison, for two reasons: 1. John Krasinski’s film is a better structured and more satisfying ride, and 2. Bird Box is closer to The Happening.
M. Night Shyamalan’s supernatural mystery is infamous for a climax that involves Mark Wahlberg running away from he wind, and Bird Box comes perilously close to similar territory, as Bullock and her tykes are surrounded by ominous flurries of leaves and moving tree branches. It’s to director Susanne Bier’s credit, though, that Bird Box isn’t laughable at any point; it’s too tense for that. But by studiously navigating away from the kind of reveal that made The Happening laughable, Bird Box also fails to give us a compelling enough explanation for what’s going on; A Quiet Place, for example, introduced a monstrous threat with an intriguing design and creepy appearance, but Bird Box’s threat remains more ethereal. That means that the movie has to find a more tangible danger for our characters to face, which takes the form of people who aren’t affected by the unseen force in the same way. But that only highlights the occasionally uneven mythology at play, from why exactly some people are immune to how our heroes manage to wear semi-transparent blindfolds (or even take them off at times) without any repercussions.
Fortunately, for the majority of the runtime, you’ll be too caught up in the stakes for that kind of nit-picking to matter. Eric Heisserer’s script ping-pongs back from the present to the aftermath of the viral outbreak, explaining how our trio got to where they are – including a stay in a house with a whole host of archetypal survivors. There’s the selfish widower (John Malkovich), the quirky conspiracy theorist (Get Out’s Lil Rel Howery), and so on. Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes cuts a charismatic figure as a former soldier with resilience and compassion to spare, and Tom Hollander is fantastically unsettling as an eccentric member of the bunch, but the fast pacing means that all the others barely register – the wasted Jacki Weaver is on screen less than Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love.
Bullock, though, proves a compelling central force, and sells the conundrum her uneasy mother faces with grit, weight and fear. For a parent in such a scenario, it’s not just about self-preservation, but about preserving one’s kids; putting their lives ahead of yours is an innate instinct, but what if preserving yourself is necessary to look after them? It’s the kind of question that was explored in another Netflix horror, Cargo, starring Martin Freeman – with both that and John Krasinski’s nerve-shredder released this year, Bird Box’s familiar genre suffers from unlucky timing. But Bier’s snappy direction, keeping the terror out of sight but firmly in mind, and Bullock’s leading turn help anchor Bird Box in the immediate horror of its premise. Find a quiet place to watch this without distractions and you won’t want to stop looking.
Bird Box is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.