What if “The Happening” but actually, you know, pretty good? That seems to be the starting point for “Bird Box”, an apocalyptic horror from producer/ star Sandra Bullock and director Susanne Bier, adapted from Josh Malerman’s novel by screenwriter Eric Heisserer (“Arrival”, “Lights Out”).
When a malevolent force manifests on Earth, it causes a wave of violence and suicides across the globe. Expectant mother Malorie (Sandra Bullock) finds sanctuary with a small band of survivors including a fellow mum-to-be in a house and they barricade themselves inside, surmising that seeing this malign entity drives people to madness and suicide. As the situation grows ever more desperate, the survivors must decide whether to remain where they are or make for a sanctuary settlement they have learned of from the radio.
Completing a loose thematic ‘Three Wise Monkeys’ trilogy along with “Hush” (Hear No Evil) and “A Quiet Place” (Speak No Evil), “Bird Box” brings us ‘See No Evil’ as to see the enemy is to go mad. Inevitably, much of “Bird Box” revisits territory explored in “The Stand”, “The Mist” and half a dozen other Stephen King novels (although it lack’s King’s gift for rich characterisation) and it owes more than a tip of the hat to the Weeping Angels of “Doctor Who”. Nested as it is in flashbacks told during the desperate expedition to reach the promise of safety, the story loses much of the suspense of wondering who will survive and replaces it with the less gripping how will each character fall away from the main narrative.
It never quite makes the most of its own premise, understandably as film is a visual medium and the story’s central conceit is not to look – something that would always work better in prose than on screen. The creature or creatures themselves remain largely unexplained and unexplored and both the characters and audience are left to surmise their nature and ultimate goal. While this leaves some room for manoeuvre from a storytelling point of view, it ultimately sets up a loose set of rules which it then doesn’t consistently follow itself. The creatures apparently can’t harm anyone physically, yet they clearly have a physical presence, affecting the environment around them. Their proximity can be detected by the reaction of birds (hence the title of the film, a reference to the new must-have accessory) and death/ infection is far from instantaneous because the entities are not omnipresent yet nobody ever risks even a peek to see where they are going, which would resolve many of the crises which befall the journey to the promised safe haven. It’s also a little too long (the run time is over two hours), caught awkwardly somewhere between needing to be leaner and pacier or needing to be a longer and more in-depth TV series.
What saves the film, though, is the committed performance from Bullock and her fellow cast members and the assured direction of Susanne Bier, who manages, despite the familiarity of many of the plot points, to develop and sustain a rich atmosphere of dread and paranoia. There are some standout sequences, including a trip for supplies in a blacked out car which uses the parking and proximity sensors to memorably riff on “Aliens”. There’s also an underlying thematic weight to the whole story as a metaphor for post-partum depression with Bullock’s character in particular wrestling with issues of motherhood and her connection to the children in her care while trying desperately just to stay alive. It’s an area of the movie that perhaps could have done with a little more development as it sometimes gets lost in everything else that’s going on but it’s a compelling idea which sees the film break out in a more unexplored direction.