This article contains major Bird Box spoilers.
Who would want to raise a child in a world like this? It’s a cynicism that is stated by many in every generation—often right before parenthood grabs them—and one that nevertheless feels most applicable to a time when climate change and an increasingly destructive divisiveness seeps into the culture. It is also very much the heart of Bird Box, Netflix and Susanne Bier’s apocalyptic melodrama with more on its mind than seeing folks off themselves in grisly ways.
Indeed, the surprise feel-bad holiday smash has already been viewed by more than 50 million Netflix subscribers around the globe, and that number is likely to only increase as the weeks pass and the streaming service has to talk more people off the seeming ledge of the “Bird Box Challenge.” But in the film, the challenge is more than the daft conceit of whitewater rafting with a blindfold on, albeit that is the film’s most thrilling sequence. For what elevates Bird Box above, say, M. Night Shyamalan’s similar suicide-heavy The Happening is that the appeal is not in how Sandra Bullock’s loved ones are driven mad and forced to commit suicide—but rather how it affects those of us left behind. How do we make sense of such senseless annihilation, and thus find a palatable future in an ever dimming world?
That prospect is both how Bird Box begins and ends: motherhood in precarious times seeming like an initial death sentence and then, finally, a saving grace. When we first meet Sandra Bullock’s Malorie, she is the guardian of two children whom she names only “Girl” and “Boy.” To call them anything more would suggest a level of ownership, that they belonged to her. While they clearly do, like Holly Golightly and her eternally nameless “Cat” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Malorie knows a name requires a level of responsibility that anchors you to a specific place, and to a specific someone. And while she’s been anchored to these children for years, she is still not ready to say anything more encouraging than, “If you take off your blindfold, I will hurt you” when preparing them for their journey. She is not ready to say her own future is tied in with their survival.
The trip, which is set-up via scattered radio communication, is one she is warned will be impossible for children. She will need to navigate white water rapids if she wishes to survive, and kids very well could mean her own death, even if their absence means the death of their collective future, no matter how long Malorie lasts on her own. It is a thematically rich paradox that has real-world applications that are quickly unspooled in the film’s crosscutting narrative. Repeatedly we switch from this ugly future to an even more chaotic past.
Years prior to being a hardened Sarah Connor type, Malorie was an artist who defined everything that mattered to her by what she could see and how it made her feel. She once created paintings that evoked the loneliness of modern life—one where interconnected communications via social media, the internet, and even streaming services have left us evermore remote from one another’s emotional islands. Malorie is more interested in conveying such desolation in a single image than she is in accepting that she is about to be a mother. It doesn’t matter that she’s pregnant and about to make her first visit to the hospital with her sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) in tow as her only support; for her it’s a dark dystopia even before people start picking up scissors and jamming them into their necks.
The film is thus about accepting the responsibility of motherhood—which requires more than providing food and basic safety—as well as finding a reason to persevere in a world where it feels like we’re destroying ourselves. That last point is made literal by the monsters of the piece. While the “creatures” are never actually depicted in the film, nor given much explanation, the intent is implicit when one of their devoted followers (played deliriously by Tom Hollander) reveals his own impressions of them. Via hastily sketched drawings that look reminiscent of a Goth kid’s notebook the semester after he’s discovered H.P. Lovecraft, the creatures are evidently Cthulhu-looking monstrosities that, depending on the sketch, resemble medieval Christian iconography of demons or H.R. Giger’s original design for the “Space Jockey” in Alien (1979), which is itself inspired by the writings of Lovecraft.
It is not made clear whether these beings are science fiction aliens like the similarly themed A Quiet Place from last year or if they’re actually supernatural demons, such as Charlie (Lil Rel Howery) speculates early in the movie. And frankly it doesn’t matter. Charlie’s description seems the most apt as it’s given the reverence of an act one data dump, and the creatures do appear to have psychic powers that feed on your deepest sadness—the wife of John Malkovich’s Douglas talks to her long dead mother before calmly seating herself into a burning car, and by the end of the film, Malorie hears the voice of her dear dead Tom (Trevante Rhodes) urging her to take off her blindfold when evil creatures are circling. However, the perpetual need to keep them off-screen like the shark in Jaws, and to never explain if this is sci-fi or religious horror, underscores why such debates are pointless.
On a larger metaphorical level, the creatures represent our growing need to tear one another down, which in turn is a version of destroying ourselves. While it might be too broad to suggest they’re a 1:1 metaphor for climate change, there is no denying they represent a world in which humanity is killing itself, and in which the extreme one-percent is basking in this. (The seduced followers of the creatures force the rest of us to “look” at the monsters while rejoicing in the “cleansed” but uglier world they are making). The point is that humanity has been “judged and found wanting,” and these monsters represent an ugly destiny for the species. So why have children?
At the top of the third act, Malorie’s lover and erstwhile stepfather to the two children says they need to give the kids hope for a future that may never come, which suspiciously sounds like their own need to have children in an apocalyptic world where a rosy future appears impossible. But what Tom most urges Malorie to realize is “they need a mother,” and that means someone who cares for them beyond the utilitarian bare necessities. It’s a fact Malorie too must come to accept when, after losing her raft to the rapids, she is left to aimlessly wander around the woods, begging her children to know the sound of her voice and to respond to her as a mother—as someone who cares for them and who they know better than blood-sucking octopi-demons in vocal disguise. Yet she has never really established an emotional connection with the young ones.
Hence the end of the movie is that, against all odds, Malorie and Boy and Girl find a future: a community where they can be safe, and where the world does go on, such as it is, to diminished but golden hued results. Inside a blind man’s greenhouse compound that’s been turned into a sanctuary, a small outpost of humanity, including children and dogs, flourishes. There is always a reason to hope for a future, even if it doesn’t come. It’s what very well may starve off the despair of literally suicidal loneliness. And to choose that hope over self-destruction also means to choose the greater responsibilities of motherhood beyond the bare minimum to survive. It requires Malorie giving Boy and Girl a name, one after Girl’s biological mother, Olympia, and the other after Boy’s stepfather, Tom. And it requires Malorie to say I’m their mother. They belong to me. And so does where this world, as screwed up as it is, is heading.