Bird Box should have been an incredibly exciting, sensory, and inventive thriller, but instead, the life slowly drains from it as we are forced to switch back and forth between the past and the present. The majority of the first half of the film is inorganic, formulaic and mostly uninteresting. It improves itself by the end with plenty of help from the ever talented Sandra Bullock, but such a weak start certainly does it no favors. I wish I could love it as much as I really, truly wanted to.
Malorie (Bullock) is a single mom-to-be who is somewhat in denial about her actual state of pregnancy. She is accompanied to her doctor with her sweet, excited and loving sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson), who seems to care more about the pregnancy than Malorie does. In an instant, chaos reigns upon them and Jessica dies (at the hand of the mysterious creatures, of course), leaving Malorie to stumble alone through the bloody, anarchic streets. She is pulled into a large house by Tom (Trevante Rhodes) to find a mismatched crew of fellow survivors (obviously), made up of John Malkovich, Rosa Salazar, Jacki Weaver, BD Wong, Lil Rel Howery, Danielle Macdonald, and Machine Gun Kelly. This timeline is definitively boring. It feels like each of the scenes and specific moments were taken out of a formula-based zombie apocalypse thriller.
I can pinpoint specific moments where I was totally heart-thrummingly engaged (Jessica and Malorie in the car, those last few moments in the rapids and the woods), but unfortunately, those fail to translate throughout the entire film. The most disconcerting and effective moments were those in the wilderness (the present timeline) as Malorie and her children fought for sanctuary, particularly the last few which follow Malorie and the kids, separated, stumbling through the woods as Malorie desperately screams for them. I am certain the film would have been most effective had director Susanne Bier chosen to follow along one timeline, rather than both. The switching between was almost jarring at times, pulling the viewer out of the wonderful intensity of the wilderness and thrusting said viewer back into the rather dull scenes of the house. The last act of the film, which is set entirely in the present and most recent past, was what I would have liked to have seen for the film as a whole.
Despite its flaws, I enjoyed many aspects of the film. I loved the moments where the camera itself became blindfolded, and we were able to understand and feel the terror and unease that Malorie and the children did. I appreciated that the creatures were not shown to us, that we only saw them through changing winds, shadows behind covered windows, voices conjured in the wind. I loved that the film focused on what the creatures forced people to do and become rather than how physically terrifying the creatures were. (It could have easily become a thoughtful commentary of the way extreme situations like these have the potential to affect our instincts and tear through our minds.)
Bird Box is entirely fueled by an astoundingly strong performance from Bullock, who was given a less-than-satisfactory script to work with and several expository monologues which seem to serve no real purpose aside from telling the audience the rules of living in such a world. Regardless, her instincts lead her in the right direction and her performance as Malorie is intelligent, powerful and chock full of energy. She has always been a deeply talented actress, and it is disappointing to see her in a role with such mediocre writing. I could probably go on and on for hours about how she literally carries the entire film on her back.
Despite being short-lived, Paulson gave a wonderfully sweet performance as a character only written to tell the audience that Malorie had a family. She certainly deserved more than such a meaningless character, although she made the most of what time she had and such a lifeless script. Other than Sandra and Sarah, most of the performances were almost entirely devoid of impact. Throughout the entire film, I only genuinely cared about Malorie and Jessica.
I enjoyed Bird Box in a lot of ways, and I am truly in love with Bullock’s performance as Malorie, but the film left too much to be desired for me to ignore all of its flaws. With such an insanely talented cast, Bier and script-writer/adapter Eric Heisserer had the potential to transform Josh Malerman’s novel into a dynamic, intense and thrilling film, yet their attempt falls flat. Instead of the gripping thriller it should be, it mostly seems like a detached cluster of scenes. There was nothing Bullock could do, exceptional performance and talent aside, to save it. Bird Box feels like a brilliant idea that never really came to fruition, and it is thoroughly disappointing. I wish I could see an alternate version of this film where every formulaic element is tossed out, every original idea is carefully and excellently constructed in the way they should have been, and Bullock is given the exceptional and dynamic script she should have been given at the beginning.
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Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and cinephile based in Colorado who often focuses on female and queer perspectives as well as female-led projects. She spends much of her free time listening to Stevie Nicks and re-watching Carol. You can find her on twitter @jenkalish.