Remember A Quiet Place, which created a post-apocalyptic world in which aliens would pop out and kill you if you made a single sound? Bird Box is pretty much the same story, except it’s looking at the creatures from another planet that will end your days on earth. Lay your eyes on one of these extraterrestrials, and you immediately want to kill yourself — throwing yourself in front of a car, or bus, or whatever is handy. You can see how this strong premise would work for a while … until, well, it doesn’t.
Based on the bestseller by Josh Malerman, this adaptation teases us with monsters we never actually witness. Not because we’d all commit suicide if we did; more likely it’s because we wouldn’t be that scared. That’s the trap director Susanne Bier finds herself in. Working from script by Eric Heisserer (Arrival), the Danish Oscar winner for In a Better World needs to rely on the group dynamic among survivors to generate suspense. At that, she’s only partly successful.
It helps a lot that the resourceful Sandra Bullock — a genuine movie star who actually knows how to act — can command the screen. We meet her character, Malorie, first in extreme closeup, reading the riot act to two five-year-olds (Julian Edwards and Vivien Lyra Blair) about keeping their eyes wide shut. From there, we flash backwards to see how the world got itself in this fix. That’s when the reluctantly pregnant heroine, along with eight other survivors (don’t ask what happened to her sister played by Sarah Paulson), runs for cover into a house owned by a suspicious, loathsome creep named Douglas (played by John Malkovich as if to the manner born). A blindfolded car trip to the grocery story for supplies supplies the film with its best blast of nerve-frying tension. Malorie bonds with Olympia (Danielle Macdonald, of Patti Cake$), who is also pregnant, She learns to trust Tom, an Iraq war veteran played by Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes. The two develop a romantic attraction, which seems unlikely given the life-or-death circumstances.
But, hell, this is Hollywood and audiences may go with the flow when Netflix debuts Bird Box in theaters this week ahead of its release on the streaming service. The less said the better about plot developments, which use every twist they can get (the end is a doozy). The haunting, hypnotic, palm-sweating score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross promises way more than the film delivers. By the way, the birds in the box are meant to set off alarms when the monsters approach. They see way more than we do, which is part of the problem. Why should birds have all the fun?