Bird Box review – Sandra Bullock's Netflix thriller is a bird-brained mess

Despite some tense moments, this apocalyptic shocker is a disappointingly clunky waste of a star-studded cast

At the start of Susanne Bier’s apocalyptic thriller Bird Box, Sandra Bullock’s face fills the screen, daring the camera to break eye contact. Her Mallory is stern and commanding – Bullock’s in drill sergeant mode, not America’s sweetheart – and she doesn’t care about sounding kind. Outside, there are creatures who will kill you with a gaze. The audience never sees them ourselves, but we catch glimpses of their presence: the leaves rustle, the birds squawk and the unlucky victim’s pupils glaze over, turning red and watery as the viewers instantly kill themselves with the closest weapon: a window, a car, a desk – whatever’s handy, bloody and smash-y.

“If you look, you will die,” Mallory orders. Two small children stare back in silent fear. She’s spent five years surviving this plague-beast-Armageddon-whatsit, most of them trapped in this house. She’s outlasted the rest of her random roommates, a grab-bag of people who, like her, blundered into the first open door the morning most of the planet got massacred, a baby carriage rolling down the street as though Bird Box wants Battleship Potemkin to make room. Now, she has to shepherd these kids out of their home, into a rowboat, and down a dangerous river – blindfolded. For days. Sighs Mallory: “It’s going to feel like it’s going on for a long time.”

Boy, does it. Bier and her Netflix producers have made an algorithmic chiller that includes every trend from the sensory deprivation horror of Don’t Breathe and A Quiet Place to JJ Abrams’ mysterious monsters to thunderingly thematic sci-fi like Arrival, which screenwriter Eric Heisserer also penned. Bird Box’s pieces feel forcibly screwed together, a movie marionetted by strings of data code. There’s good scenes and smart ideas, but overall, the movie mostly clomps. Tense sequences, like an early attempt to head out for food, are capped by clunky punchlines while the climax is almost guaranteed to get giggles, as though the puppeteers in charge accidentally screwed on that scene in The Wicker Man where Nicolas Cage screams about the bees.

The ensemble, too, feels as curated as a box of donuts. There’s the classic crowd-pleasers such as Bullock and John Malkovich as an alcoholic crank who blames Mallory for the death of his third wife. (His second, he admits, said hell “couldn’t be worse than being married to me”.) There’s the cult favorites such as Sarah Paulson and Jacki Weaver. And then there’s the exciting flavors, all upcoming actors seized while hot: Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes, Patti Cake$’s Danielle MacDonald, The Maze Runner’s Rosa Salazar, Get Out’s Lil Rel Howery as a grocery store worker who never strips off his polyester vest, and Machine Gun Kelly, poised to slither on to every hitlist after playing Tommy Lee in the Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt.

These characters feel so crammed together and underwritten that they add up to almost nothing. When we meet them all, the camera bobs around like it’s just trying to count off that everyone’s in the room. Within minutes, the strangers solve the basic concept of what’s killing the globe, voices overlapping like this horror film could, with one butler tuxedo, suddenly spin into a British farce with people barging in and out of the kitchen in high-pitched crisis announcing things such as: “We need toilet paper!” and “Don’t answer the door!” No one gets a backstory. They simply arrive with one personality trait – Paulson’s character really likes horses, McDonald is a wannabe Disney princess – or in Kelly’s case, ominous camerawork that shoots him like a slasher villain for no reason at all. At the end of the film, you don’t feel moved to hoot for any of the individual performances – but you’re tempted to applaud the casting director.

Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson in Bird Box
Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson in Bird Box. Photograph: Netflix

Kicking off with Mallory’s brutal river babysitter mission is bold and bone-headed. That opening lecture lets Bier establish Bird Box’s rules, not that the two tykes listening are any more obedient than puppies. But when the film then jumps back five years to the first day of the attack, where most of the film takes place, there’s zero suspense in watching the rest of the cast get picked off. The what, why and how of the crisis never gets answered. Bird Box only grapples with the question of when – when will each person be stricken with the vicious Visine? – but even the film’s sense of time feels scrambled. The major scenes in the house could take place over days or weeks, it’s impossible to tell.

And the script is only moderately interested in logistics. There’s a quick lesson in echolocation, a dozen shots in blindfold-o-vision, sidewalks strung like Theseus outsmarting the Minotaur, and an entire sequence that’s a sales pitch for cars with proximity sensors. However, the back of the audience’s brain is stuck trying to figure out things like: are the monsters hunting their prey, or is it just impersonal? How do the roommates get rid of the corpses? And how offended will the American Psychiatric Association be that Bird Box’s secondary fiends are mental patients who, according to the film, can’t be driven crazy by the creatures because they’re already insane?

Bier is a lauded film-maker in her native Denmark, and recently directed the stellar first season of The Night Manager with Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie. How odd that in Hollywood, she’s made a career of helming can’t-miss films that somehow fizzle, be they the Oscar-striving pedigreed nonsense of Halle Berry’s Things We Lost in the Fire, or her more recent romance Serena, which paired Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper right after Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle and still flopped. Whatever’s going wrong with her American choices must feel as hazy and treacherous as whatever’s making Bird Box’s leaves rustle. Perhaps she, too, feels like Mallory, her competence going ignored by capricious children. As for the audience, as the film staggers on in its quest to give us entertainment satisfaction or death, we’re tempted to identity with the movie’s first victim, a woman in a tracksuit banging her head against the glass, ready to get this painful sight over with.

  • Bird Box was screening at the AFI festival and will be available on Netflix on 21 December


Amy Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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