Granting a movie its concept is, in general, as axiomatic a principle as a respectable film critic can hold, but boy does Susanne Bier’s Bird Box test that classical truth at every turn. Adapting a story about the perils of sight to a visual medium is both a grand folly and a delicious possibility, a dare to accept the task of playing around with cinema’s very form. To forget the foundational cinematic tradition of show-not-tell. To both advance to its logical conclusion terror’s tradition of visualizing the un-visualizable and, as importantly, to acknowledge what can’t be seen. So the “concept” of Bird Box isn’t actually rotten so much as a question mark, a quandary to be used for good or ill as the creators see fit. How do you use a visual medium to thematize the inability to see?
So far be it from me to claim that Bird Box certainly doesn’t seem aware of either the paradox, or the possibility, of navigating something that by nature should be unfilmable. In other words, other than the simple “gimmick” that we can’t see the monsters, the film has no actual inspiration, no idea how to mobilize this question cinematically. Rather than a wonderful structural absence mounted to fruition, the film’s concept – monsters that the characters can’t see, because seeing them instantly induces rampant suicidality – only ever plays a concept, a gimmick, a figment in a screenwriter’s mind and not a living, breathing experiment formally translated to film. That ineffectiveness alone probably ought to make this cinematic adaptation of Bird Box essentially irrelevant, if not entirely moot, from the get-go.
But the film tries, so let’s take it out for a walk. To compensate for any serious consideration of its structuring absence, the film doubles-down on structural and narrative tricks, none of them good, some merely benign and others truly malignant. In the former category, one can put the rote characterization of Sandra Bullock’s protagonist Malorie, an astringently lonely woman on the verge of being a mother and wholly denying the implications of this fact to herself. When the monsters arrive, the film thematizes them as though they have no real consequence on the world other than to convince Malorie to be a better mother. The world suddenly collapses into moral and existential panic as people start killing themselves left and right, leaving the pregnant Malorie besieged in a home with a number of other garden-variety, superficially-humanized mince-meat, all there seemingly to convince her not to be them, but to, you know, learn how to be (and better) herself.
Even worse, we are actually introduced to Malorie not as a mother-to-be but in the film’s “present-day,” an indeterminate amount of time after the apocalypse hits, where she is hurrying out of a house and into a river-boat with two roughly five-year-old children, named Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair) and Boy (Julian Edwards). In a scene dedicated rather brutally to informing us just how stone-cold Malorie is, she stares right in the camera (which takes the perspective of the children) and barks orders at them, telling them they will die if they take off their blindfolds (we don’t know why at the time). It’s mildly effective, if blunt, but it inaugurates what qualifies as a “theme” for the film – Malorie learning how to be a more compassionate mother and generally more humane person – that, in practice, means the film has an “excuse” for relying time and time again on “child in peril” sequences when it doesn’t have any better ideas about how to explore dread.
From there, the film – entirely arbitrarily – cuts back and forth between the present-day narrative of Malorie and children on the river and the initial outbreak, where the pregnant Malorie finds herself vaguely safe in a house with a number of other survivors who, naturally, get picked off as they become less useful for the film’s desire to have them teach Malorie a pre-packaged notion of maternalism. Actually, they teach her many things, some of which blatantly contradict the film’s desire to educate Malorie on compassion, but the film conveniently forgets the conflicting perspectives it imagines early on so it can be on its merry way to a banal, faux-clever screenwriter’s arc. Rather than playing with the concept, the film expends all of its energy clearly building up to an astonishingly overdetermined moral paradox involving the two children, one that doesn’t emanate from the characters so much as a screenwriter abstracting a moral quandary and erecting a plastic story edifice around it. Then, and only then, does the film essentially drop the paradox entirely, rewarding Malorie for filling out the predetermined “be a good mom” arc that contradicts advice that the film itself admits was sensible earlier on.
Even taking the moral perspective for granted, the temporal flip-flopping is a ruse, ever-chintzier than even the gimmick on the tin. The two timeframes are insoluble – they’re essentially two different films – and there’s no thematic commentary on or reason for this insolubility, no sense of what was once that now there is not, and no real commentary on the progression of Bullock’s character. Unlike say George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Bird Box isn’t meaningfully compelled by the possibility that the apocalypse is a more fitting environment for her semi-sociopathic misanthropy. Rather than intimating the brutal heart of humanity, Bird Box clearly wishes to teach Malorie. Which is, you know, lame to begin with, but even then, it doesn’t actually teach her. She simply figures out at one point how to care for people. It’s a singularly telling example of arguably the most depressing trend in modern genre cinema (and, increasingly, a trend encroaching on cinema writ-large), of needless narrative complication operating under the presumption that turning one’s film into a puzzle is a replacement for genuinely exploring themes. In fact, Eric Heisserer’s entire screenplay has that slightly stuffy, supercilious demeanor, like it’s constantly clearing its throat about the importance of its analysis to distract us from how the whole film boils down to little more than a gussied-up horror film that’s too proud, or conceited, to legitimately descend into the slasher picture it is afraid to be.
Because, quite frankly, it isn’t much of a slasher picture, or a horror film at all, which is the real tragedy. Even the material that works – a set-piece in a closed car is reasonably elegant – collapses under the creeping sensation that a director like Bier is playing a game of keep-up with a number of other perfunctory horror flicks rather than curating her own misadventures in whatever genre of her choosing. In principle, I’m all for directors of existential tragedies turning their despondent gaze toward horror, tilting their eye for the lonely and the disturbed toward the more explicitly terrifying and even malignant. But Bird Box entirely punts on arguably the paradigmatic horror concept of seen and unseen, hardly ever using cinema’s sense of visual perspective to explore its themes, let alone to induce fright. After a pretty phenomenal introductory social collapse, a travesty rendered as near-un-representable catastrophe that jeopardizes the very capacity of the film to represent knowledge which lies in excess of it, the film loses the thread almost immediately. I’m not trying to suggest that a film about not being able to see shouldn’t have been translated into a visual medium, but I don’t have to; every inch of the film makes the suggestion for me.