Based on Josh Malerman’s 2014 novel of the same name, Netflix’s Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic tale of family, sacrifice, and survival.
In Bird Box, the world is suddenly thrown into chaos with the arrival of new and mysterious beings. Anyone who sees one of these creatures will immediately lose their mind with fear, causing deadly harm to themselves and others. The film follows Malorie (Sandra Bullock, Gravity) as she takes refuge in a house with a group of strangers, all trying to adapt to this new and horrific reality.
Part of what makes Malerman’s novel so effective is that the book challenges our other senses as a reader. Malorie can’t see what’s happening, so the most horrific scenes rely on her description of what she senses, hears, and feels. Our imagination runs wild to create our own idea of what the creatures might look like.
It’s a phenomenal story that’s brilliantly written (you really should read it), but it’s a difficult book to adapt to a visual medium.
Writer Eric Heisserer (Arrival, Lights Out) and Award-winning director Susanne Bier (In a Better World, Brothers) find some creative workarounds to keep the momentum going. For example, the housemates black out the windows of a car and use parking sensors to navigate a supply run. But when you’re relying so heavily on the actor’s reactions to what they hear, it’s hard to maintain that tension.
One of the film’s strongest scenes is the sudden, chaotic societal unraveling as this strange epidemic sweeps through the city. The fear is palpable as panic sets in — no one knows what’s going on.
This scene is followed by the introduction of several characters all at once, which presents a different kind of chaos. The strangers talk over each other and speculate on what exactly is happening. Admittedly, this scene feels rushed and cluttered, and ends on a bit of a confusing note as the group suddenly lands on an explanation for these catastrophic otherworldly events.
As far as exposition goes, it’s like a whack to the back of the head with a baseball bat; it’s blunt, it’s fast, and you’re not really sure where it came from.
The cast is stacked with strong performers including John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich), Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story), Trevante Rhodes (The Predator), Lil Rel Howery (Get Out), Danielle Macdonald (Patti Cake$), Tom Hollander (Gosford Park), and the aforementioned Sandra Bullock,
As is expected with a large cast in a horror film, many are there for the purpose of being written out. Which is – again – expected, but the way they make their exit doesn’t always make a ton of sense.
Of course, as with any adaptation, scenes and timelines need to be condensed, and certain beats need to be hit for the story to progress. But it’s another element of the film that really feels rushed, and arguably, this is an area that shouldn’t be.
Another challenge of adaptations is the pacing, and Bird Box is a tricky film to pace. Each scene is an alternating “chapter” in the life of Malorie, switching between the events of the present (as she navigates rough terrain with her children in the search for safe haven), and memories of the past (that explain how they got to this point in their lives).
The transitions between the scenes – for the most part – are pretty smooth, though it does throw a bit of a wrench into the momentum of the film. However, the time slip does give a breather between events, which helps smooth out the storytelling and stretches the intensity.
Though Malorie is very pregnant, she’s neither invested in nor prepared to be a mother. Bird Box puts a focus on Malorie’s identity as a mother and how her cautious survival mindset has affected her children and their relationship as a family.
When you get down to it, Bird Box is all about this concept of family. It’s about what we learn from them, and how we relate to each family member. It challenges the idea of what makes a family and how those bonds are formed. It highlights what it means to be a family.
Malorie – as a character – is consistently strong. She’s outspoken, confident, and comfortable wielding a shotgun. Bullock embodies the character with ease, bringing her relatable charm and candor to the role. And in a time where there’s an industry double-standard for the age differences in on-screen relationships, it’s great to see Bullock turn the tables on that trope. Take that, Tom Cruise.
Book-to-film adaptations are always tricky, and – as previously stated – this is a particularly difficult book to adapt for a visual medium. As a two-hour movie, Bird Box rushes some scenes while others linger a bit too long.
That said, these lingering moments flesh out the film with a realistically complex humanity. Under Bier’s direction, the film is enriched with strong emotion and some well-executed moments of tense horror.
Bird Box is an intense ambitious, creeping thriller about survival and sacrifice, and the lasting effect they have on family. It’s a serviceable adaptation that doesn’t quite meet its full potential, but – to pull a lesson from the film itself – there are far worse things you could see.