Review: Bird Box

Bird Box (2018, Netflix)
Dir: Susanne Bier

Director Susanne Bier, well-known for a couple of Oscar-nominated films including winner ‘In A Better World’, somehow went from making a film that next to nobody heard of or saw, to this one that it seemed like nearly everyone was watching and talking about.

Rapidly sweeping the globe, an intangible entity infects the minds of all who see it, causing them to go insane and ultimately end their own lives in some way.

Bier’s previous major film was ‘Serena’, a limited release with absolutely no fanfare, which took around $100,000 at the U.S. box office, less than $4m internationally. Despite starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, it didn’t even break the top 10 in most countries and you would struggle to find anyone who made any effort to see it, even I didn’t bother. But with ‘Bird Box’, it was a completely different story. Even if people still wouldn’t recognize Suzanne Bier’s name (it would be a disservice for me to overlook mentioning that she’s also particularly well known for her work in television making such acclaimed successes as ‘The Night Manager’ and ‘The Undoing’), they have almost certainly heard of this film.

It was just a few weeks after release in the winter of 2018 that this was the choice for a small group of my friends on a quiet New Year’s day to enjoy together. A matter of hours after we’d seen ‘Mary Poppins Returns‘ to mixed and muted response, this had us sufficiently gripped, united in tension. One friend was so anxious by the end of it her heart rate was nearly double mine (see, smartwatches have a purpose, quantifying things like this).

Having someone as recognizable and respected as Sandra Bullock as a lead in a movie like this is great, especially for Netflix. It’s good to see her taking on diverse roles, and as is often the case she’s completely capable of holding the film together in a central role. It’s interesting to see that her latest film, ‘The Unforgivable’, also a Netflix release, was their most-watched film last week, again proving the power that a recognisable and respected actor can add to a movie that otherwise would have been very niche and hard to sell.

It’s also good to see that the film isn’t reliant on Bullock being the only top-tier actor, many of the smaller roles feature other brilliant and recognisable actors. Sarah Paulson who worked with Sandra Bullock on ‘Oceans 8’ (which I recently reviewed, but to summarise my thoughts in a sentence, it tries to cover over the cracks of uninventive plotting and zing-less delivery with a stellar cast) plays her sister. John Malkovich is cast in a role that calls on him to do what he does best, a classic John Malkovich performance, characteristically intense, initially unliked, yet ultimately endearing, completely his wheelhouse.

An interesting comparison has to be made to theatrical hits ‘A Quiet Place‘ and ‘A Quiet Place: Part 2’, with their focus on threats linked to certain senses. In those films, the survivors have to be quiet because the creatures are so sensitive to sound, here sight is the way the threat gets you. There are already enough things that could kill if tasted, but I wonder how long before we get a film where the risk is by smell? I can write the tagline right now… ‘One sniff and you’re dead’… Netflix, call me!

Noteworthy is how the film does very well to not show the threat. Though apparently there were some creature designs drawn up for them, wisely they were never used. It intimates sufficiently that they look different for each person, affecting them in ways that won’t necessarily have any significance to anyone else around, so showing a threat that manifests itself like that, would have had to be explained each time. Unseen threats, that could be anywhere, that’s a far more horrifying concept.

Thinking about this again, now in the era of Covid-19, it really holds up well. The ideas of how people will find ways to adapt to avoid ‘infection’ and how that can become part of life, those aspects all ring true. I’m fascinated by how many films the pandemic is giving a new perspective on, with aspects that once seemed ‘far-fetched’ or ‘unrelatable’, now becoming conceivable and relatable.

Many would rather face scary films at home than in a cinema, and it’s easier to convince friends to sit and watch this on their couch than go to the cinema and pay a lot, especially in case they really don’t enjoy it and feel like they’ve wasted their money, so films like this on Netflix, ones that’ll get people talking, are such a good move for the streaming service. Expect them to keep making more in this genre, though not always with such widespread success.

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