'Bird Box' Review: Frequently Terrifying, But Frustratingly Derivative

"It's going to be rough," Malorie says at the start of Bird Box. She's looking right into the camera when she says this, and it's as if she's speaking directly to us – warning us that what we're about to see is particularly unpleasant. It immediately sets the stage for Susanne Bier's frequently terrifying horror film, but it also doubles as a warning about the moviemaking itself – what you're about to see isn't going to unfold as smoothly as it should.

Of course, Malorie – as played by Sandra Bullock – isn't talking to us. She's talking to two children – Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair). The fact that these kids don't have real names immediately catches our interest. Just what is going on here? What world have we stepped into? Malorie and the kids are about to hop in a small boat and head up a treacherous river. And they're taking the journey blindfolded. These mysterious, curious details draw us in, and hold us wrapt. There's a mystery to unlock here, and we might not like the answers.

As Malorie and the children travel the river, Bird Box jumps back five years, introducing us to a completely different world. A world that looks much like our own. Malorie, who is single, is pregnant, and it's clear she doesn't want to keep the baby. Adoption is the likely next step, but before she can even begin to think about that, all hell breaks loose. While leaving a check-up with her sister (a woefully underused Sarah Paulson) in tow, chaos begins to reign. People begin acting out of their minds, inflicting self-harm upon themselves until they end up committing suicide. Something is triggering this madness.

Before Malorie has a chance to comprehend just what is happening, she ends up in a mansion with several strangers. These group of survivors quickly surmise what's going on out there: there are some kind of creatures that drive a person to suicide the minute you clap eyes on them. Birds seem to be the only living creatures that can predict when the creatures are on their way – a kind of canary in a coal mine situation.  This overall premise, which is inherently Lovecraftian (one of H.P. Lovecraft's running concepts was monsters so inexplicable that the very sight of them would drive a person bonkers), is both wonderful and terrifying. Bird Box wisely never shows us these creatures – because after all, to see them might drive us insane.

From here, the film cuts back and forth, between the past – where Malorie and the others, including Lil Rel Howery as a would-be-writer, Trevante Rhodes as a helpful man, Jacki Weaver as a helpful woman, and John Malkovich as an absolute a**hole, navigate through their day-to-day existence of hiding to survive – and the future, where Malorie and the children traverse the river, hopefully to safety.

This set-up is sound, and has the potential to lead to something fantastic. But it doesn't. Despite many elements in Bird Box working effectively, the movie never quite comes together. For one thing, Bird Box suffers from a frustrating derivativeness. The film borrows from a plethora of post-apocalyptic films that came before it. The rag-tag band of survivors trapped in one place feels lifted directly from Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake. The mysterious, invisible force driving people to suicide recalls M. Night Shyamalan's much-maligned The Happening. Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's The Mist seems to be a huge influence here, too – there's even an entire sequence set inside a supermarket, as well as mention of one neighbor suing another over a property dispute – both of which feature prominently in Darabont's flick. And while Bird Box is based on a novel from 2014, the picture can't help but feel reminiscent of this year's A Quiet Place. The later half of the film, where characters adjust to moving around blindfolded, especially recalls John Krasinski's movie – just as the characters in A Quiet Place had to learn to live silently, the folks in Bird Box have to learn to live without sight.

bird box movie castBird Box works best when it's cranking up the fear factor. While Bier's direction of the day-to-day minutia is often lackluster – she seems to favor close-ups and medium-shots, giving the proceedings a TV movie vibe – her handling of the horror elements is masterful. Several scenes in Bird Box are legitimately scary – aided by a gloomy score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and meticulous, jarring sound design by Ben Barker. When the creatures attack, you'll find yourself unnerved, unsettled, and downright scared. The director wisely keeps things going, too – these aren't quick over-and-done jump scares. The horror is dragged out, sometimes playing out for several minutes.

Bier is also skilled at staging memorable set pieces: one lengthy sequence, in which Malorie and several survivors pile into a car with blacked-out windows, and use the vehicle's proximity warnings and GPS to navigate blind, is particularly wonderful. As the car travels through the streets, tires crunch over the skulls of dead bodies, and soon, creatures have surrounded the car, setting off those proximity alarms (and recalling the famous air duct sequence in Alien in the process).

A few emotional moments ring true as well. One quiet scene, where Malorie chats with another pregnant woman, played with a heartbreaking sweetness by Dumplin' actress Danielle Macdonald, is so emotionally earnest that it almost doesn't fit in with the rest of movie. And a big, dramatic, emotional beat near the end lets Bullock shine.

More often than not, though, Bird Box feels about as adrift as the boat Malorie and the kids are stuck in. Other than Bullock, we don't really get to know most of the characters in the film. The only other individual with any real personality is Malkovich's antagonistic jerk, who is somewhat modeled on bigoted Trump supporters, and forced to utter cringe-worthy lines like, "We're making the end of the world great again!" Tom Hollander makes an impression as a character who shows up midway through the film, but his part is little more than an extended cameo.

Bird Box has all the makings of a great horror film. But as Malorie and the children near the end of their journey, a curious disconnect settles in. The two halves of the film – the dangerous adventure up the river, and the band of plucky survivors gathered in a house – never come together into one whole. They ultimately feel like two completely separate movies. Even Bullock's character in the flashbacks seems like a different person. You could argue, of course, that five years of hiding from murder monsters changed her personality. But that change never feels organic, or earned. It's just there. There are plenty of details to relish in Bird Box, but the more the story unfolds, the more cumbersome it becomes. Malorie warned us at the beginning that it was going to be rough, and she wasn't kidding./Film Rating: 6 out of 10


Bird Box is now playing in select theaters. It debuts globally on Netflix on December 21, 2018.