While this era of #PeakContent may be overwhelming, it’s also an incredible gift. It brings us movies like Netflix’s Bird Box, an adaptation of the 2014 novel by Josh Malerman which in turn provides Danish director Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) and lead actor Sandra Bullock a chance to tell a different kind of genre survival story than we’re used to seeing in the mainstream. A cross between Room and A Quiet Place, Bird Box follows mother Malorie (Bullock) as she works to keep her children alive in a world in which the human population has been decimated by an unseen supernatural force that preys on sight, sending those who see it into an urgently suicidal state.
Adapted for the screen by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out, Arrival), Bird Box is both a tale of apocalypse and a post-apocalyptic drama. Its frame tale follows Malorie and her two children, named Girl and Boy, in the post-apocalypse as they attempt to make the dangerous 20-mile trek down a river to a sanctuary promised by a voiceover in a walkie-talkie. Oh yeah, and they have to do it blindfolded.
The other half of the story is told in flashbacks, mainly to five years prior when the apocalypse first began. We meet Sacramento-based modern artist Malorie, unenthusiastically pregnant with only her sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) for support. Malorie’s struggles to accept the reality of this intimately life-changing event are thrown on the backburner when viral mass suicide strikes, throwing the world into collective chaos.
The depiction of the end-of-world event is particularly well done. Unrelenting and disturbing in its emotional impact, it reaches a horrific crescendo that balances the desolate desperation of the frame tale’s dystopia. The viewer iis never shown the horrors that those affected are wintessing. Instead we see only the horrific results as people behold their loved ones single-mindedly killing themselves. People can’t turn away… but they must if they have any hope at survival.
The flashback narrative soon settles into a character-driven horror as Malorie becomes part of a group of survivors barricaded inside one Sacramento home. This is where most of Bird Box‘s strong supporting cast comes into play, with John Malkovich, Rosa Salazar, Danielle MacDonald, Lil Rel Howery, BD Wong, Jacki Weaver, Tom Hollander, and Taylor Handley all playing morally complex and unpredictable variables thrown into this end-of-the-world social scenario. Through this mini, end-of-the world morality play, the audience is left to imagine where they might fall on the scale of self-serving to community-oriented when faced with the end of the world.
Bird Boxalso ets a lot of steam from a subversion of how we generally imagine survivors in our mainstream stories. Pregnant, middle-aged artist Malorie is far from the burly, muscled men or even young, stoic teen girls we usually see making it through the apocalypse or dystopia. Traditionally when pregnant women show up on screen, especially in stories like this one, they are solely a plot device and/or a symbol of the future we are trying to preserve. They are characters to be protected or saved. Not only do pregnant women rarely get to do the saving, they often don’t even get to have a fully-developed perspective on the end of the world. A classic example of this is in Children of Men, in which young, black mother Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is sidelined to tell a story about motherhood, fertility, and immigration from white male martyr Theo’s (Clive Owens) point-of-view.
Refreshingly, Bird Box gives a much more complex depiction of pregnancy and motherhood. Malorie is one of two pregnant characters in the film (the other played by rising star Danielle MacDonald, recently seen in Netflix’s Dumplin’), and the two distinct characters have very different relationships to the concept of motherhood and pregnancy. Past that, the way other characters respond to Malorie as a pregnant woman is not divorced from the additional, protective consideration pregnant women (especially white, well-groomed pregnant women) often get in our society, but, because Malorie is the protagonist, she isn’t defined by that consideration. She is more than a symbol of the future we are trying to preserve. In one of the film’s best moments, Malorie picks up a shotgun and aims it at the first new stranger who asks to come into the relative safety of the house, surprising both us and her fellow houseguests. It is also foreshadowing the kind of survivor and mother Malorie will become.
Bird Box is less articulate in its exploration of post-apocalyptic motherhood. With fewer scene partners in this desolate dystopia, and most of them five-year-olds, we get less of a sense of who Malorie is as a mother and person past broad strokes. Malorie is a Sarah Connor-type, choosing survival over tenderness, determining those qualities as mutually exclusive in a way that these types of stories so often tend to. In this way, Bird Box falls into a trope-y trend of feminist storytelling that conflates qualities characterized as traditionally masculine, such as emotional stoicism and aggressiveness, with strength. Still, it is somewhat refreshing to see Bullock’s Malorie characterize those qualities, while Trevante Rhodes’ Tom prioritizes empathy, gentleness, and caring. We get flashes of Tom challenging Malorie’s assumptions about strength and survival, but the movie never fully commits to this interrogation.
Bird Box does lose momentum in the third act after the flashbacks move much closer to our protagonist’s present, and we’re stuck solely in the post-apocalyptic world. The tension between apocalypse and post-apocalypse, between “then” and “now,” between civilization as we know it and something else, is lost. The film wraps up a little too quickly, giving the viewer little time to dwell on what Malorie has or hasn’t learned about survival, love, and community. Though Malorie’s character is less fleshed out in the post-apocalyptic frame tale, Bullock fills in many of the character gaps from the script with her dynamic performance. Bier’s direction is excellent throughout, just as confident depicting apocalyptic chaos in the overrun streets of Sacramento as she is communicating the lonely desperation of Malorie floating blind-folded down a river with two small children in tow–never forgetting the emotional factors in either situation.
Bird Box is a story about the anxieties and responsibilities of parenting in a world that may be falling apart, and in a time when the future seems less certain than ever. It’s all wrapped up in a taut, post-apocalyptic package, a deftly-done genre first for Susanne Bier. This movie is a symbol of what Hollywood looks like now that women like Sandra Bullock are finally able to use the star power and industry know-how they’ve built up over decades to make new kinds of stories.
Bird Box releases on Netflix on Friday, Dec. 21.