Film review | Bird Box - No gazing into the abyss, kids

Susanne Bier’s perfunctory adaptation of Josh Malerman’s high-concept horror novel is an entertaining chiller that falls short of greatness due to Netflix’s rough-and-ready production approach

Blind as a bat, vulnerable as a bird: Sandra Bullock shields her eyes from the apocalypse in this survival drama from Susanne Bier
Blind as a bat, vulnerable as a bird: Sandra Bullock shields her eyes from the apocalypse in this survival drama from Susanne Bier

There’s always room in this world for a high-concept dystopian chiller, all the more one that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your sofa as it streams on everyone’s favourite online service. But Netflix once again frustrate audience expectation and content potential by rushing into production a film that could have served as a true jewel in their genre catalogue, as Oscar nominated director Susanne Bier (After the Wedding, Serena) pairs up with Sandra Bullock to adapt Josh Malerman’s debut novel, Bird Box.

Though allegedly conceived before a clutch of pop culture properties elbowed in to steal its limelight -- these being Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, M. Night Shyamalan’s dismal film The Happening and the slightly better A Quiet Place -- Malerman’s novel has a glowing nugget of an intriguing concept at its centre, one that the film adaptation (penned by Eric Heisserer) initially appears ready to exploit with some gusto.
Five years prior to the present-day action -- where Bullock’s Malorie strictly instructs her four-year-old charges, simply named ‘Boy’ (Julian Edwards) and ‘Girl’ (Vivien Lyra Blair), to not take off their blindfolds as they embark on a treacherous but necessary trip across the river -- a weird epidemic destabilised the world order.

Kicking off in Russia but reaching the rest of the world in short order, mass suicides began to occur, spread simply by looking into the eyes of the infected, who in turn ‘see’ invisible monsters that induce them to commit suicide or, if they are already mad, drive them to form a hive-mind like cult and encourage others to kill themselves. After a pregnant Malorie witnesses her sister succumbing to this suicidal epidemic, she holes up in a house with a group of strangers, much to the chagrin of Douglas (John Malkovich) -- a surly, gun-toting survivalist hostile towards Malorie from the beginning.

Perhaps it’s not much, but it does not feel like so: at one point, Charlie (Lil Rel Howery), the chubby and nerdy member of the group who serves as a fount of knowledge of apocalyptic narratives while pottering away at his own novel, insists that his take on the dystopian fiction genre will be nothing like The Hunger Games and its ilk, but the real deal.  This could be a hint towards Bird Box’s loftier ambitions, and it does hold up… to a point.

Bullock has plenty on her shoulders -- both literally and dramatically -- and she doesn’t miss a beat as either the cynical reluctant mother or the hardened survivor, dredging up a largely painful rural upbringing to aid her in her near-impossible quest. She’s just about the only superlative thing in what is otherwise an exercise in uninspired filmmaking, however.

Bullock’s dramatic heft, the source novel’s own acclaim (Malerman is a reference point in contemporary genre fiction), both a director and screenwriter with Academy Award heft (Heisserer wrote the screenplay to Arrival) and a soundtrack by none other than Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross would yield a staggering result under better circumstances, one would imagine.

The most plausible conclusion we can draw from this is that Netflix needs to give itself more time to properly incubate talent and concept.

The verdict

While setting itself up as a high-concept horror feature with an emphasis on the drama over exploitative theatrics, Susanne Bier’s well-meaning effort ends up feeling like yet another rushed-into-production casualty of the Netflix Originals model. With a tight central idea and a compelling performance by Sandra Bullock on its side, this could have played so much better in the long run.

Bird Box is currently streaming on Netflix.