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Even a terrific Sandra Bullock can’t save Netflix’s Bird Box

Though the film isn’t totally bird-brained, it’s not high in the pecking order, either

sandra bullock in bird box
Sandra Bullock as Malorie Hayes.
Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Bird Box, Netflix’s new high-profile thriller, is a mixed bag. There’s a lot that grabs you, and then there’s the ending, which is unfortunately so farcical that everything that came before it immediately sucks out the air in Bird Box’s metaphorical balloon.

Directed by Susanne Bier (After the Wedding, AMC’s The Night Manager) and adapted from Josh Malerman’s 2014 novel of the same name, Bird Box unfolds across two timelines: The first, in which Malorie (Sandra Bullock) attempts to shepherd Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair) and Boy (Julian Edwards) through a post-apocalyptic landscape — while all three are blindfolded; and the second, several years earlier, explaining the circumstances that led them to their journey in the first place.

The film opens just as Malorie and the kids are about to embark upon their escape to a possible safe haven is a bold gambit, and one that works — at least temporarily. But why are they running? What’s going on in the world? Though Malorie re-explains the rules to her charges (keep your blindfolds on at all costs), the audience is expected to figure out what’s going on through context clues. That lack of hand-holding could be refreshing, however it only lasts until the first flashback. Then the movie starts blaring themes and exposition, as if to assume audience is also wearing blindfolds.

The bluntness might be less noticeable if Bird Box weren’t pulling from the same post-apocalyptic playbook that we’ve seen a million times before. A mysterious radio signal, a budding romance, anxiety about becoming a parent, a mistrustful grump, an over-trusting sweetheart, a mostly invisible, alien presence; every piece of the puzzle is there.

Trevante Rhodes, Julian Edwards, Bullock, and Vivien Lyra Blair.

The monsters, at least, are somewhat novel. As implied by the blindfolds, they’re creatures who kill through sight. Anyone who lays eyes on them is driven to commit suicide by the nearest possible means, though the rules become less and less nebulous as the movie progresses, and it’s suggested that even a blindfold might not be a foolproof method for staying safe. (The suggestion that the creatures can manipulate gravity to a certain extent is also briefly floated — and never addressed again.) Any A Quiet Place comparisons are warranted, given the sensory stakes, but the degree to which the creatures remain a mystery scuttles the balance — as well as the film, which doesn’t have enough else going for it to justify a “that’s just how it is” gloss over any semblance of reasoning.

“That’s just how it is” also accounts for the film’s most baffling choice, which is to cast the mentally ill as its secondary villains. Instead of killing themselves upon seeing the creatures, they roam about, evangelizing to survivors, forcing them to open their eyes and thereby condemning them to death. There’s no explanation as to why this is the case, which only makes the choice seem more irresponsible and retrograde.

Lest this seem too harsh, Bier is capable of drawing blood from a stone. Her direction lends a sense of tension to some of the film’s set pieces, including a simple moment in which one of the children wanders off, and the tethers they use to try to stay together start to unmoor. The assembled cast is also packed with heavy hitters, each of whom make more than what ought to be possible from roles that never quite progress beyond character archetypes.

In a roster that includes Sarah Paulson, Jacki Weaver, Rosa Salazar, Danielle Macdonald, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, and BD Wong, only Trevante Rhodes and John Malkovich really stand out. (Well, okay, Hollander does too, by cranking up just how jittery his character is by 300%.) Malkovich’s character, twice divorced and once widowed, is the resident crab, happy to abandon the others so long as he can ensure his own survival — though Malkovich is inherently idiosyncratic enough to imbue the character with a sort of charm. As the post-apocalyptic heartthrob, Rhodes takes on his second role this year (the first being in Predator) that proves he’s leading man material, ably holding his own against Bullock, who in turn is doing a whole lot of heavy lifting.

John Malkovich, who we love.

The fact that Malorie is the only one left taking care of the kids in the film’s present-day timeline should be enough indication as to what happens to everyone else (and goes hand-in-hand with how thinly they’re sketched). Bird Box is largely a solo show, and luckily, Bullock is up to the task, commanding attention — and tension — whenever she’s on screen, even as the story congeals around that ever-present post-apocalyptic theme: parenthood.

Still, as predictable as most of the movie may be, there are still a few genuine scares. The first victim we see claimed by the creatures comes as a shock, and the initial panic, which is chaotic enough to hint at just how brutal people can become in order to survive, has much the same effect.

All in all, there’s enough to recommend Bird Box, particularly given that it’s streaming on Netflix, but there’s also enough that’s risible about it that a recommendation has to come with a few caveats. Bullock is great — but largely forced to carry the movie on her own. The monsters are scary — but grow less and less so as their nebulous nature is used as a loophole. The secondary characters are fun — but burn out quickly. The film is fun — but ends so ridiculously that the finale may just color your entire opinion of it.

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