Warning: This article contains spoilers and analysis of the Netflix version of “Bird Box” and other films including “The Happening” and “A Quiet Place” (you should probably watch them first before reading this).
Bird Box is now the most popular initial release of a Netflix Original, ever. Out of its approximate 125 million subscribers, over 45 million accounts have watched the film. That does not equate to “people” as presumably, some people opt to watch movies together rather than solo and desperately alone — especially psychological thrillers bordering on horror.
Although, I suppose calling Bird Box a horror film is grossly misleading. There is very little horrifying about it. It is the classic and over-used movie vehicle of “there is a mystery killing the human race, and we need to figure out what it is and survive no-matter-what.” If you watched the movie and felt that perhaps you’d seen it before, that’s because its possible you have.
The movie starts as an unknown threat from Eastern Europe is making its way to North America. Chaos ensues when people around the world are being driven to commit suicide when they look upon the mysterious threat outside. During a hurried escape sequence during which her sister ends her own life, Malorie (played by Sandra Bullock) receives refuge in a house of random strangers sharply guarded by a man named Douglas (John Malkovich). The group navigates the new world (both literally and figuratively) and learns how to survive the days and weeks following the outbreak. Days and weeks turn into five years when after the loss of the love of her life, Malorie is forced to travel down the river with two children to seek sanctuary.
When I say you may have seen this movie already, I’m not talking about zombie post-apocalyptic movies such as “World War Z” or the world of “28 Days Later.” In one movie they discover a possible cure or weakness in the zombie disease and can beat it, and the other, they endlessly try to survive without ever finding a cause or solution to infection (not unlike the ongoing saga of “The Walking Dead”).
Bird Box is hauntingly similar in feel to M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” (more spoilers ahead). The parallels are blatant. There is a mysterious and unseen threat lurking outside that nobody can view with the naked eye. People who succumb to the unseen enemy inexplicably and immediately commit suicide. Nobody who has seen the threat has lived to tell the tale. The trees shudder, the leaves rustle and even levitate when the threat is nearby. The threat to humankind in Bird Box differs from The Happening in one primary way. The monster of Bird Box appears in the early portions of the movie to have huge looming shadows, suggesting an actual physical presence. Even the charcoal drawings secretly carried by Gary (one of the compromised strangers in the house), suggests a demon-like manifestation of evil. However, this may only be a characterization of his madness, functioning only to identify himself as one of the insane, or perhaps as one who looked and has been “tricked” or forced to stay behind and clean up the straggling humans who learned to survive. However, this visible imagery of the threat in Bird Box is abandoned (or forgotten) near the conclusion of the film when it appears as an invisible and encroaching force from all sides. The Happening is much more consistent, where the threat is eventually discovered to be the trees and plants emitting toxins as a defense mechanism against a burgeoning human population.
In fact, there was a scene filmed for “Bird Box” showing the actual physical demon. Sandra Bullock revealed a description in an interview with “Bloody Disgusting”:
“It was a green man with a horrific baby face […] It was snake-like, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to see it when it first happens. Just bring it into the room. We’ll shoot the scene.’ I turn and he’s like this [growling at me.] It’s making me laugh. It was just a long fat baby.”
Director Susanne Bier decided that not seeing the creature at all was more thrilling and suspenseful than their physical depiction. It was cut from the movie. Rightfully so. What we can come up in our heads is undoubtedly a lot more terrifying than a “long fat baby.”
Moreover, the removal of the scene allows the film to delve into and even capitalize on the recent focus on mental health issues. We all have our own personal demons, making an actual physical manifestation unnecessary. Who can truly understand the mindset or motivation of a single person to commit suicide without living their life as they had lived it? I’m reminded of fond thoughts of Anthony Bourdain (Parts Unknown, No Reservations), Chester Bennington (Linkin Park), and Kate Spade before they took their own lives. The struggles lived, the demons fought.
Even though no physical demon is shown in the movie and the scene excluded, does the fact that there was an actual physical depiction of the threat to humanity created, shot, and then later left on the editing room floor, ruin the movie and the world of Bird Box? Probably.
If it had been relegated to rumor and not confirmed as authentic by the star of the film, perhaps we would be more interested in a sequel. Now that the monster is out of the bag, the only choices are to revision the creature entirely, or never show it at all (and how much fun would that be?)
Beyond The Happening (but more recent in memory) is A Quiet Place, which is also very similar to Bird Box in that it also preys on sensory deprivation (you cannot make any noise, or you will die). The theme of family and love is also a driving factor in A Quiet Place. At the beginning of the film, father (John Krasinski) takes a newly discovered toy away from his son, which is then given back to the son by his daughter. Silently walking home to avoid detection from monsters with super auditory hearing, the son is suddenly killed when he activates the noisy toy space shuttle. This incident creates enormous guilt and a perceived rift between father and daughter. We navigate through similar learning about the monsters, a detection method, and ultimately a weapon to defeat them. The underlying father-daughter dynamic eventually leads to its conclusion late in the movie where the father emotionally reaffirms his deep love for his daughter before sacrificing himself to save the family.
These gross similarities in plot and concept between the films do not mean that Bird Box is not good — it is very good. There are a lot of films that are very similar to other movies. It is said that all movies have already been made and we are just re-telling the same basic stories over and over again. Hollywood has even resorted to rebooting already told stories like the new paradoxical Star Trek franchise, or even the newest installment of “A Star is Born”.
The surprise in the fact that Bird Box is so similar to The Happening is that it is entirely coincidental. Josh Malerman wrote the initial rough draft of Bird Box before the 2008 release of The Happening. Even Malerman recognized the similarities between his story and The Happening when it appeared in theatres. The chances of two very similar stories being created around the same time seem too impossible, but things like that happen frequently. There’s even a theory that attempts to explain it.
Called many different things including “universal knowledge,” the theory suggests that when an idea is “ready” or “mature”, it will pop into the heads of multiple people at once. One of those people is sure to see the concept through to fruition. The theory may explain why sometimes you may find yourself saying “that was my idea” after someone else has launched a product or business based on something you briefly contemplated years ago. We will leave the deep contemplation of philosophy and the origin of ideas for another time.
The threat in Bird Box preys on two critical weaknesses of human nature, making it a very well-crafted enemy. It preys relentlessly on our curiosity, and love of those who have already departed from this world. For example, the love of a mother who died over a decade ago can lure a daughter in a burning car to explode in a fiery death. Near its conclusion, our main character Malorie is taunted to “look” by a recently lost love. The movie also suggests that demons are feeding on the souls of the living, which is why people are driven immediately to suicide. One thing is certain — every person is lured to “look” in a very personal way.
Our protagonist and children in the film are able to overcome all to become the lone survivors from the house not because she was the toughest (despite the badass scene with the shotgun), but because of her power of observation (and a bit of luck). She instinctively and correctly identified important warnings, detection methods, and became entirely pragmatic about solving the problems of sustained life under the new rules.
Love truly conquers all except for Malorie, whose cynicism and poor relationship with her father (as well as a recent one-night stand that left her pregnant) has mostly psychologically inoculated her from the threat. She is isolated from others, finds it hard to connect with people, and even her art reflects it. Others who appear to be immune are the already insane and those with impaired vision, proving once and for all that the crazy or blind (and not the weak) shall inherit the Earth.
The odd thing about the “walls” and defenses that Malorie has inside of her is that to survive and keep the children safe; she has to break down these walls. She repeatedly relies on the relationships and protection of others to survive. Learning to trust other people (despite harsh and unforgiving consequences of mistakes) is what ultimately leads to their safety and connection to a sustainable world of the future.
There are only a few markedly emotion jerking moments in the film for me. As the father of a nearly 2-year-old baby girl, I found the cold treatment by Malorie of both nameless children “Girl” and “Boy” was enough to provoke an emotional response from me. Her matter-of-fact statement to them that she would “hurt them” if they took off their blindfolds set a very emotionless relationship with them. Thankfully, her love for both of them is revealed at a critical time when her ultimate choice seemed obvious and predictable. Malorie’s choice of who would be the one to “look” at the moment needed to save them all from death struck a chord inside me. It was difficult not to shed a tear.
As a whole, the quality of the movie is quite high. However, the film feels as abbreviated as its weak character development — the movie trying to do too much in too short of time. I cringe to say it, but perhaps if it had been drawn out into multiple films, Bird Box would have been enormously better. Presumably, the book is the better entertainment option. The gaps and missing pieces in the Netflix version gives an unwelcoming and clunky feel to the movie, which is unfortunate due to its apparent star power of Sandra Bullock and cinematic quality.
From the first moments of the film, we are not kept watching because we care about the characters (because they are abbreviated and shallow, devoid of any meaningful backstory). We keep watching because of a primal need to know what the things are, and we want to see what they look like. Not unlike the film itself. If you look at the beautiful monsters, you will die. It is the ultimate fatality of “curiosity killed the cat.”
The religious undertones are pronounced and cliche. The apocalypse. Judgment day. The movie straddles the line of whether the human race has brought this plague upon ourselves, or if perhaps we are being wiped out by one of our creations, or if there is some foreign invasion, or maybe ISIS has finally weaponized religion.
Something is always coming to wipe out the human race inexplicably. The one thing the movie got right is that when the end comes, nobody is coming to help us. There will be no cavalry galloping to our rescue, no FEMA to bring aid and supplies, and even the most technologically advanced military in the world would struggle to battle what it cannot gaze upon. Humankind will inevitably be caught with its pants down.
If Shyamalan’s Unbreakable and the seemingly endless stream of superhero box office offerings has taught us anything, all superheroes (as well as enemies) have a weakness. While the world of Bird Box has not exposed the specific weakness of this particular enemy (yet). It may be detectable by the movie’s namesake — a box filled with birds.
Even though Netflix revenue is booming, the company is over $20B in debt and still seeking profitability. That seems staggering when Netflix appears at the peak of its popularity. With so many exclusive specials and original films, it would seem that the streaming service should be looking to swing cash positive before something inexplicable shows up to change the trajectory of its fate.
While there is much criticism of Netflix for producing the film and spending so wildly on its original programming, I don’t fault Netflix for producing the film. I applaud exclusive content. For many years of my life, I abandoned traditional television and exclusively watched Netflix. I’m a subscriber and a fan. Their corporate strategy ensures that subscribers stay subscribed, and you must own a subscription because otherwise, you’ll miss out on what everyone else is talking about.
With Shyamalan’s film Glass coming soon to theatres in January 2019, Bird Box will surely draw attention to his Hitchcock-esque films and drive more interest in the movie, which appears to combine several characters from the world of Unbreakable and The Beast.
Undoubtedly following on the success of Bird Box and our lack of closure on what the threat truly is, or what caused the invasion in the first place, we are surely heading to a sequel. If the “rules” of a sequel franchise are to be fulfilled, “Bird Box 2” will delve deeper more into what the monsters are, expose potential weaknesses, and show ongoing life in the future. A potential future installment of “Bird Box 3” might go into the origin story and history to answer the questions of where it all came from and how it all happened.