Just a point of order here. Many people are saying Netflix’s Bird Box is a ripoff of The Quiet Place, a film released into theaters in April 2018. This would be a neat trick as the book it was based on and took all of its baseline concepts from was published in 2014. I haven’t read it, but I understand it was pretty good. From the Amazon page for it-
“Publisher: HarperCollins UK Josh Malermans debut novel BIRD BOX is a terrifying, Hitchcockesque psychological horror that is sure to stay with you long after reading In its world of collapsing resources. endless terror and eye masks. Bird Box turns the old Hollywood cliche. of facing down the demon inside out – then tears it into little pieces Daily Mail Malorie raises the children the only way she can: indoors The house is quiet The doors are locked. the curtains are closed. mattresses are nailed over the windows… They are out there. She might let them in. The children sleep in the bedroom across the hall. Soon she will have to wake them. Soon she will have to blindfold them. Today they must leave the house. Today they will risk everything.”
As far as Bird Box being good or bad as a horror film? Well, with this version, largely good ideas with, sadly, bad execution.
The idea of surviving in a world where taking your blindfold off and opening your eyes can be an instant death sentence is a wonderful setting for horror. The vast majority of us are not blind, and, for most of us, having to function and survive totally blind in a life or death situation is an absolute nightmare scenario. The thing is, it’s a nightmare scenario best served by being presented on a smaller, more personal scale.
The central concept for Bird Box is a fantastic one for the written word regardless of the imagined scale and scope of the story. You could make the journey and overall setting as large and broad as you wanted to because the narrative could be kept personal to the character and thus keep the terror more personal for the reader.
Using this concept for a movie on the big or small screen, you run the risk of removing more and more of the terror and tension as you make the feel of the movie larger and larger in scale and scope. It’s in this trap that Bird Box found itself blindly stumbling into to.
The film runs two narrative timelines for much of its early going. We move back and forth between the present, a world where whatever threat now exists has mostly wiped out humanity, and the beginning and early days of the fall of humanity. Most of the two narratives’ stories we follow are separated by roughly five years with Sandra Bullock’s Malorie as the central character of both. However, you never really get a true sense of the passage of time in the one we should be getting that from.
That wasn’t the only failing of the part of the film where we see the start of the monsters wreaking havoc on mankind and then see most of our small band of survivors not surviving all that well for long. This part of the film was kept to a smaller, more contained setting and scale. This is where we should have felt the growing desperation of the situation our characters find themselves in. We largely don’t. This was the part of the film we could have been given scares built around the central conceit of the film. We mostly don’t. This is part of the film that could have played on the feelings of blindness and claustrophobia needed to ratchet up the tension in the viewers. What we got instead were largely mundane scenes that carried little tension and built towards very little in the way of scares. Additionally, most of the early going capitalized on or emphasized the central concept of the film in actual execution so poorly that most of the scenes could have belonged to almost any film.
Some of this has to fall on the shoulders of screenwriter Eric Heisserer, the screenwriter behind a number of less than spectacular films. However, a great deal of it has to fall on the shoulders of director Susanne Bier as well. At least as it plays on the screen, much of the writing does not seem designed to build the world needed to pull the viewers into it in the ways needed. But even where we do have such scenes written; as executed by Bier, they simply fall flat. Directing horror, perhaps more than with any genre other than comedy, is a specialized skill. Susanne Bier, at least right now, does not have the right skillsets as a director to make those scenes, written effectively or not, work anywhere near as well as they could. From the look of her filmmaking résumé, she hasn’t spent a lot of time developing that skill, either.
The present-day scenes are also far less effective than they could have been. Navigating an occasionally treacherous river blind or blindly stumbling through the woods are old horror concepts. They’ve been done well any number of times before, but they fail to truly pull off any scenes of tension or terror here.
One thing that might have helped the filming of such scenes might have also helped with a story point in the film. I kept wondering, in the scenes set in the early days and the scenes set in the travel on the river and through the wilderness; why not travel more at night?
Minor spoiler here. It doesn’t really spoil anything important to the overall film, but it is something of a small spoiler. If you want to, skip to the “End of Spoilers” line.
There are two threats to our survivors throughout the film. The first is our unseen by the viewers threat, whatever it is that compels people to kill themselves the moment they see it. The other threat is the odder one. Our survivors encounter other humans- as explained in a few lines of dialogue here and there -who were suffering extreme and occasionally dangerous mental issues before all of this happened. For some reason, these people don’t want to kill themselves when they see the unseen by the viewers threat. They perceive it as an almost revelatory and beautiful thing and feel compelled to serve it. They serve it by finding survivors and forcing them to look at the unseen by the viewers threat, causing them to fall under its power and kill themselves. Traveling under the cover of darkness would help with these matters.
End of Spoilers
If you’re traveling blind and silent, you don’t need lights that would give away your location to those who have eyes. In areas of almost complete darkness, you also greatly limit your own ability to see any real distance. Strategically, as a survivor, one might assume this would allow for moments of emergency sneak peeks, but, more importantly, it would limit your accidentally seeing the thing you most want to avoid seeing.
On a technical level, it would have made the viewers almost as blind as our blindfolded survivors. Rather than seeing big, open parking lots, large stretches of a river, or less than dense areas of the wilderness filled with, well, nothing threatening at all or some less than chilling FX work to signify the approach of our film’s threat, we would have been almost as blind as the characters had to be to everything they encountered.
Rather than seeing Sandra Bullock’s Malorie stumble about in terror while seeing enough of the landscape around her to know she was in little to no danger, we would have been squinting at the shapes in the dark and wondering if something was there or not. Removing the well-lit streets, river, and woods and replacing them on screen with darkness would have made us hear more of what was around her and wonder what it was we were hearing. Additionally, in scenes where Sandra Bullock’s Malorie actually hears our unseen by the viewers threat, it would have likely ratcheted up our tension as we wouldn’t have been looking at big, empty spaces and the occasional attempt at so-so practical/CGI effect mixes.
The character work in the film is good for what it is. We don’t find ourselves hating or disliking to any great degree any characters we’re meant to like and/or identify with. However, we also don’t find ourselves liking Sandra Bullock’s Malorie as much as we could. Once the two children of the film are introduced into it, one of them actually being her child, we’ve reached the stage where Malorie will do almost anything to survive but will do very little to actually be alive.
She doesn’t want the children to hear stories of life before the event or stories to give them hope. She doesn’t want Trevante Rhodes’s Tom, the man she’s now in a relationship with, giving the children any sense of a better world that could be again. She drills into them to not care if something happens to one of them, telling them to leave whoever behind as needed and keep surviving. So focused on surviving rather than living is she, she refuses to even name the children. Through all but one moment in the movie; she doesn’t even give the children names other than Boy and Girl. In the parts of the movie we most need to feel for the character, the writing makes us like her less.
The resolution of the film has a somewhat clever twist to it, but a twist that, in part, occurred to me while I was watching the film. Not that I was particularly clever about figuring out the twist, mind you, but it’s an obvious one to think about in a film where the threat is dependent on sight.
The resolution also doesn’t hold up well with just a few moments of thought. Malorie takes Boy and Girl on a long, dangerous journey to the one place where they can find safety and a life for them all, and the location, at least what’s shown of it, is nothing more safe and secure or stable in the long term than what they left behind.
In the end, this is a film that seems as if it’s supposed to be all about the journey, but it’s a journey that feels almost pointless by the end of it. It’s neither a journey that is a truly satisfying one or one that creates any great desire to take it again.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. He has in the past contributed to websites like Needless Things, Gruesome Magazine, and others while occasionally remembering to put up the odd musings on his own blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, on Decades of Horror, and on the Nerdy Laser. He is also a regular co-host on The Assignment: Horror Podcast as well as the primary writer for its affiliated blog.