The Pitch: Sandra Bullock stars as Malorie, a reluctant mother in the midst of an apocalyptic event, in Bird Box, Netflix’s star-studded adaptation of Josh Malerman’s 2014 horror novel. Like the book, Susanne Bier‘s film centers around a feverish rash of mass suicides triggered by the sight of some unformed breed of creature, one Lovecraftian enough to drive whoever sees it to end their life as quickly as goddamned possible. The result is mass chaos and blindfolds galore, what with sight now proving untrustworthy. Malorie, her eyes still untouched, finds refuge in a suburban McMansion alongside a diverse array of survivors, the likes of whom forge a makeshift community before, as is common in these kinds of stories, paranoia and unrest gums up the works. As we follow the fates of this motley crew, Bier’s narrative routinely jumps forward five years, when Malorie and two children brave a two-day sail down a perilous river in search of a new community.
Unadaptable?: It’s easy to compare Bird Box to this year’s A Quiet Place, another movie in which horror is intrinsically tied to one of our major senses. But Malerman’s story, which pre-dates John Krasinski’s horror sleeper, is no imitator; truly, it’s infinitely more compelling in its possibility. That said, A Quiet Place, a movie in which the visual is favored over the audial, was made for the cinema. Bird Box, on the other hand, was undoubtedly meant for prose. That proves to be the undoing of Bier’s movie, which tries and, unfortunately, fails to capture everything eerie and ambiguous about Malerman’s text. There, the reader is as cut off from this post-apocalyptic world as our hero; we’re behind the blindfold with her as the weight of this unseen horror encroaches. The horror is in the unknowing, and the point is in the not seeing. Here, Bier wisely shies away from revealing the threat, but is inevitably forced to give it some kind of manifestation, the likes of which — swirling leaves, distorted whispers — are disappointingly plucked straight from the Horror 101 playbook.
Unsemble: Eric Heisserer, whose script for Arrival remains an outlier in a career that also includes the awful Lights Out and Extinction, fumbles more than once in his tepid adaptation, but one of his most glaring missteps is the beefed-up ensemble, which expands upon Malerman’s trim set of characters with a silly gang that slots a bleary-eyed Machine Gun Kelly alongside a hammy, lip-smacking John Malkovich. Not only do these characters never develop beyond their established archetypes, but they bring next to nothing in terms of story or tension — Kelly, for example, disappears unceremoniously, depriving us of the MGK death for which one longs (we’ll have to settle for Eminem’s “Killshot”). This influx of personalities also provides a tonal imbalance, with Lil Rel Howery‘s goofy grocery store manager serving up some overwrought mugging that stands out starkly against the film’s otherwise morose tone. It’s only once the herd has been thinned out and the air left uncluttered that some genuine pathos emerges, with Malorie and Trevante Rhodes‘ veteran Tom finding several moments of affecting tenderness.
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Is It Scary? Not particularly, though Bier does cultivate some eerie tension from the story’s central gimmick, limning the tried-and-true horror tactic of Anticipatory Waiting with a lethal edge. It’s thrilling with it works, if only because there’s ingenuity to the idea that you could die via something creeping into your vision. Bird Box really starts cracking, too, once it’s revealed that not everybody dies when they see the creatures; for them, it becomes a religious experience, one worth evangelizing. What she can’t quite capture, however, is the disorientation; she often places her lens behind the blindfold, but the effect is short and static, the gauzy figures beyond never taking a compelling shape. When the monster ostensibly exists just outside the blindfold, it feels like cheating to leave the blindfold at all. But that, of course, wouldn’t make much of a movie.
The Verdict: As a film, Bird Box has so much working against it. Not only is there the looming specter of A Quiet Place and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (a spiritual forebear), but there’s also the hefty challenge of making sight the enemy in a visual medium, one that Bier has proven herself so adept at capturing. Here, she captures some breathtaking shots of the unforgiving elements — honestly, it’s a shame that so much of the film is relegated to a suburban home — but there’s a fundamental problem here, one of conception, not of execution. Bird Box didn’t need a craftsman, it needed an innovator. It doesn’t help that Heisserer tries to compensate by giving an emotional weight to the creatures; here, they (occasionally; the rules are unclear) manifest as loved ones, giving them a manipulative edge that betrays the faceless menace of the book. In general, there’s a thematic straining, a stab at culling more emotional weight from the narrative than is necessary. Some things are best left unsaid. Some are best left unseen. And some are best left being books.