There is no shortage of post-apocalyptic thrillers in film; audiences seem to be obsessed with watching, analyzing and thinking about when and how humanity will reach its end. “Bird Box,” the Netflix sci-fi thriller adapted from Josh Malerman’s novel, offers both an interesting take on the end of the world and riveting, emotional insights on survival, parenthood and humanity itself.
Director Susanne Bier (“The Night Manager”) uses a very intuitive and keen style that combines the wise use of environment, as well as the innate psychology of a woman facing an uncertain journey that requires her to ultimately face her biggest fear: connection. Many will be tempted to compare it to “A Quiet Place,” and while the two share many similarities, “Bird Box” differs by building its thrills on emotion rather than playing with the quiet anticipation of the unexpected.
The film opens as Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is barking orders at two young children she calls Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair). They must head to the river nearby, get on a small riverboat quickly, and head to safety — while being blindfolded the entire time. Not exactly a nice boat ride with mom. Through a series of rapidly unfolding flashbacks, the film unveils that they are running from unidentified “creatures” that, if you look at them, will show you your deepest fears and then make you kill yourself.
Malorie first encounters the effects of the creatures midway through her pregnancy, as she waits for her sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) to pull up the car after an OB-GYN appointment. In rapid succession, Malorie watches in horror as people all around her find ways to kill themselves, filling the streets with chaos and danger that will remind many of the Sudden Departure scene from “The Leftovers.” She finds shelter in the home of Greg (BD Wong) home, which is filled with other terrified and bewildered survivors: Tom (Trevante Rhodes), an Iraqi war vet with a soft spot for Malorie; Charlie (Lil Rel Howery), a grocery-store employee with dreams of being a novelist; Doug (John Malkovich), an ornery and always on-guard neighbor; as well as Sheryl (Jacki Weaver), Lucy (Rosa Salazar), Felix (Colson Baker aka rapper Machine Gun Kelly). This group discovers what’s happening during the few minutes they are able to access the local news, and they discover that whatever this phenomenon is, it’s happening all over the world, and they must find a way to survive.
There is much to be said of the messages and symbolism within the film. The novel was written in 2014, but screenwriter Eric Heisserer (“Arrival”) brilliantly interweaves subtle contrasts that reflect on today’s world. His adaptation offers fleeing refugees seeking shelter (with a quick shot of the borders being ordered closed), climate change that no one can outrun, the mass amount of gun violence and more, all the while asking, How do you prepare the next generation, when you aren’t even sure you will survive the day?
Bullock’s performance is brilliant — she takes all these internalized fears and crafts a character who has already disconnected from emotion. Throughout the films, she challenges what “maternal” means in circumstances this dire. Does motherhood mean cuddles, rainbows, and filling a child with hope, or does it mean you raise a survivor, constantly teaching and training them, as you remain on guard, always holding them at arm’s length for fear of losing them to the ways of the world? How a mother protects her children from the world is a question every single parent contemplates, and figuring out how to raise the next generation is one of the scariest and most difficult issues we cope with every day.
For generations, the picture of motherhood has been that of a woman who connects with her child immediately, who is openly loving and soft. Motherhood today is not as simple. There are real dangers that our children face daily, simply by walking outside. There’s no new handbook to teach us how to prep our kids in case their school is taken over by a shooter, nor is there a guide on how to lead our children when we ourselves are uncertain of what the future holds. We’re all fumbling into this new parenthood blindly, hoping that we’re raising smart and strong kids while also allowing them to experience the joys of childhood, and it’s that innate understanding of parenthood that makes Bullock’s performance feel real. It’s equally fascinating and terrifying to watch.
The supporting ensemble each brings a unique personality to the mix, but it’s Rhodes’ Tom who gives the story its heart and soul. He brings charm as well as a nuanced take on how strength can mean giving all of yourself, living and loving fully, even in times of chaos. An interesting insight within the dynamic of Malorie and Tom is the idea that there must be a balance of both, the survivor and the caretaker, in order to ensure humanity’s survival.
“Bird Box” is not the jump-scare thrill machine that some might expect when they hear “post-apocalyptic thriller.” It’s quiet at times and quick in others. Much like the film’s creatures, it digs into our deepest human fears and opens a world that lives in that fear. And when it asks you to remove the blindfold and watch what happens, it really is beautiful.