(US - 2018)
Directed by Susanne Bier. Written by Eric Heisserer. Cast: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Jacki Weaver, Rosa Salazar, Daniele Macdonald, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, Colson Baker, BD Wong, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Vivien Lyra Blair, Julian Edwards, Parminder Nagra, Rebecca Pidgeon, Amy Gumenick, Taylor Handley, David Dastmalchian, Happy Anderson. (R, 124 mins)
Based on a 2014 novel by Josh Malerman, the frontman for Detroit indie rockers The High Strung, the Netflix Original film BIRD BOX has an intriguing concept that was probably conveyed more effectively on the page than on the screen, where its ideas come off as tired riffs on the overly familiar. Comparisons to this year's earlier A QUIET PLACE are inevitable, and there's also some of PONTYPOOL and the apocalyptic horror feel of THE WALKING DEAD, but it mostly plays like a less preachy retread of M. Night Shyamalan's little-loved THE HAPPENING, which seems an unlikely choice for any film to emulate, especially a decade later and with no apparent sense of revisionist affection on the horizon. Jumping back and forth between the present day and five years earlier, BIRD BOX takes time to piece its story together but you'll ahead of the game all the way, predicting all of its punches and reveals long before they're apparent to its characters. It opens with Malorie (Sandra Bullock, who also produced) coldly and methodically blindfolding two children, named "Boy" (Julian Edwards) and "Girl" (Vivien Lyra Blair), and loading them, some supplies, and three birds in a box into a small boat for an arduous journey along a dangerous river. She dons a blindfold herself and warns them to not speak or remove the blindfolds no matter what they hear.
SERENA, do manage to convey a nerve-wracking intensity in the early outbreak scenes and in the bits where the survivors go out for food and supplies blindfolded, forced to feel their way around and at the mercy of voices constantly badgering them to "look." But the more the film goes on, the more predictable and silly it becomes. They let another pregnant woman, Olympia (Danielle Macdonald), in the house against Douglas' wishes, but when odd, twitchy Gary (Tom Hollander) shows up, it should be immediately apparent that he's bad news, which only Douglas--BIRD BOX's de facto Harry Cooper--seems to pick up on. Things really start collapsing around the time Malorie and Olympia go into labor at the same time. When the backstory is told and the third act goes forward with the river journey, the film turns into an eye-rolling metaphor for...I don't know...motherhood, I guess? Malorie is distant, unlikable, and often cruel to Boy and Girl, so much so that they're five years old and don't even have names. It's eye-rollingly ludicrous when she has her Come to Jesus moment as "it" surrounds them but is held at bay when Malorie defiantly declares "Leave my children alone!" That's even before a Shyamalanian reveal and the absurd reappearance of a minor character who only seems to exist to give a nod of affirmation that, yes, Malorie is indeed a good mother. BIRD BOX has an effective score by always-reliable team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (the closing credits theme really gets its John Carpenter groove on), and it benefits from an ensemble of fine actors--and Machine Gun Kelly--doing what they do. Bullock and Paulson display a terrific and very natural sibling chemistry until Paulson's early and abrupt exit, Howery is essentially playing the same comic relief exposition guy he perfected in GET OUT, and Malkovich is cast radically against type as "John Malkovich." But it doesn't offer much in the way of originality, and seems specifically designed to be a horror movie for people who don't watch horror movies and therefore won't recognize just how many ideas it's recycling.