Open your eyes and you may die.
That’s the premise of Susanne Bier’s Birdbox. For Malorie (Sandra Bullock), the post-apocalyptic setting of screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s adaptation of Josh Malerman’s novel is a chance for rebirth.
Currently sitting as the most popular Netflix Original film yet, bringing in over 26 million views in just under three weeks, Bier’s film revolves around the arrival of mysterious “monsters” who prey on your insecurities and fears, thus making you commit suicide instantly. Make no joke, there are some brutal death scenes in this film, helping it meet the required quota for a science fiction thriller with some drama elements.
Told in a nonlinear fashion, jumping between the outbreak of the attack and five years in the future when Malorie and her two kids are desperately trying to make it down a river to a sanctuary (there’s always a sanctuary in these end of the world flicks), Birdbox does a good job of heightening the suspense and maintaining that level of awareness for the entire two hour running time.
There isn’t a big lag in the film, a period where interest drops and the cell phone is taken out to be checked. The tension doesn’t drop, even when Malorie is tending to survival in a house full of misfits, including a fellow pregnant woman (Danielle Macdonald) and an old, crotchety widow (John Malkovich). A romantic subplot with Tom (Trevante Rhodes) builds organically and isn’t rushed, and the flashbacks never confuse the viewer. Bier and Heisserer want to keep you off-balance with the time period shuffle, making it so you never get too comfortable.
If there’s one reason to watch Birdbox, it’s Bullock. Combining star power and Oscar-caliber acting that she has honed from a long and versatile career, the actress makes you buy into all the outrageous hooks of the plot’s beat, and keeps your attention glued to the screen. When we first meet Malorie, she isn’t the greatest person in the world, a woman who is expecting a child yet not looking forward to being a mother. Self-centered and narrow-minded, she isn’t just trying to survive the ominous presence that has taken over people’s minds, but struggling to be a better person. In a lesser performer’s hands, the effort would be visible and the effect would be less. Bullock is the rock in Bier’s film.
A few scenes truly stand out. When the group of house guests venture out into the great scary-beyond for groceries, some danger finds them, and Bier never shows you too much, preferring to let your imagination do the heavy lifting. When a strange man (Tom Hollander) arrives at the house midway through, we know it’s bad news, but still find a way to shriek in horror.
The best part comes near the end when Malorie and her kids are stuck in the woods, trying to remain blindfolded and hold onto her two kids. As a parent, I was stricken with nerve-racking grief during these scenes of rugged survival. Bier and Heisserer take the time and pay attention to the complexity in getting a young kid to pay attention AND listen. Well done.
What else is there to be said? The pacing isn’t great, the tone slips between drama and thriller often, and the film comes off more like a B-movie waving its freak flag than a film made out of gorgeous craft. This is a delivery pizza and 2-liter of Pepsi kind of movie, the one you grab a blanket and some trustworthy friends to watch with. The goal was never to win Oscars like Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma.
Let’s just say I had nails and was seated at the back of my bed when the film started, and found my way to the end with a pile of nails at my feet by the end. Birdbox succeeds at keeping you guessing, entertained, and moved. That’s right, Bullock’s performance makes Birdbox a moving experience.
Try not to be entertained here. I dare you. I guarantee you won’t want to cover your eyes.