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Non-Review Review: Bird Box

Bird Box is a fascinating contemporary horror movie.

The stock comparison will be to something like A Quiet Place, another contemporary horror movie that plays a fairly standard set-up with a high-concept twist. In A Quiet Place, the characters were stalked by monsters that could not hear them, and so they had to move without generating any sound. In Bird Box, the characters find themselves confronted by supernatural monsters that drive any person who looks at them completely insane, often to the point of self-destructive suicide.

Carry on regardless.

However, Bird Box feels decidedly more abstract than A Quiet Place, more lyrical and more metaphorical in its construction. It was often difficult to read a strong central allegory into A Quiet Place, to see it as anything more than a very effective old-fashioned horror film that very effectively literalised one of the central tensions for horror movie audiences; the desire to scream with the need to keep quiet. Bird Box does something similar, effectively creating a horror movie where even the characters themselves must close their eyes when the scary parts happen.

However, there is much more going on in Bird Box, perhaps even too much. The central premise of the horror movie lends itself to any number of varied (and possibly contradictory) readings about the insanity of the modern world and the need to protect the family from chaos that might at any moment encompass them. Bird Box is an ambitious and effective horror, one that applies a variety of tried-and-tested horror formulas to bracing social commentary.

Life is anything but a dream.

Many horror movies hinge on the push-and-pull tension around the desire to see a monster. On a most basic surface level, very few people want to see something horrific and monstrous, or to confront something grotesque and terrifying. After all, it is probably better to never have to face a monster at all. However, if one must confront a horror, there is also a sense in which seeing a thing allows it to become knowable, and that knowing a thing renders it powerless. Familiarity strips away a lot of horror. Seeing the monster might rob it of its power.

Even on a more basic level, seeing a monster removes the fear that the monster could be lurking anywhere in the darkness. If a character and the camera can see the monster, then the audience knows where it is. It cannot lunge from the darkness, it cannot catch the audience off-guard. It might be disgusting and unsettling, it might be tough to fix eyes upon it. However, if a monster can be seen it can be rendered familiar and routine. To pick one example, the burns on Freddy Krueger’s face were originally horrific, but over time became a comforting genre move staple.

Bird Box is an extension of the modern “meta” monsters popularised by media like It Follows or A Quiet Place, or even Slender Man or Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who. These are monsters that effectively weaponise the structures of horror movies against their audience: the monsters in A Quiet Place that hunt based on the audience’s screams; the creature in It Follows that operates by a series of rigidly-defined rules; the eponymous Slender Man who implants himself in victims’ heads as an idea; the Weeping Angels, who only move when they cannot be seen.

On a most basic level, the creatures in Bird Box weaponise the desire to look away from horror. In terms of horror cinema, that desire to close the audience’s eyes or to bury their head in their hands or even to look at the floor during a scary sequence. Indeed, it is surprising that Bird Box began as a novel written by Josh Malerman, as the creatures that haunt the narrative seem especially suited to a visual medium like film or television. After all, what could be a more dangerous medium for these creatures than one based on images rather than prose?

Parenting blind.

The monsters lurk at the edge of the frame, in a perpetual tension with both the camera and the audience. Their presence felt rather than seen, often indicated through indirect means; the anxious chatter of the birds in the eponymous box, the rustling of leaves on the wind, an extended shadow stretching across the screen, a weight on a car roof. These creatures might be invisible to the audience, but they have mass and weight. They are a force within the narrative, and their movement through it has lingering effects.

Horror has always been a vehicle for social commentary, in various media across the history of language. The monsters in Bird Box are particularly abstract in nature, never allowed to manifest in the manner that the invading forces do in A Quiet Place, and this allows them to function more overtly as a stand-in for more grounded and realistic anxieties. When the audience cannot see a monster, and can only piece together its outline, it is easy for that outline to take on a familiar shape.

At the heart of Bird Box is the idea that the modern world is an inherently insane place, and that this insanity is spread through information. It is made very clear early on that the image of a creature is just as deadly as the creature itself, a motif that repeats throughout with both black-and-white video footage and even crude pencil sketches. “An image can still have power,” suggests Malorie at one point, as the characters consider alternative ways of getting information about whatever these things are.

Bird Box suggests that the danger posed by these creatures is viral as much as literal, that it can be conveyed as easily through information technology as through anything biological or literal. “Do not go outside,” a newscaster warns the frightened population. “Avoid social media.” When Charlie constructs an elaborate theory about what these monsters are and what they represents, his colleagues wonder where he got those ideas from. “The internet,” he answers, “that’s where you get all your information from.”

In jeep, jeep trouble.

Bird Box might be read as a broad horror film about the dangers created by the internet, a rapid-fire nexus of connections and signals that allowed for the spread of ideas and information in a way that the human brain is not necessarily always able to handle. Bird Box repeatedly hints that the creatures have such a profoundly destabilising effect on people because the human brain is not wired to process the information that it receives. The central horror of Bird Box is the breakdown of society when human beings can no longer make sense of what they see.

The central tension within Bird Box is an existential paradox that feels very contemporary and very familiar. How does a person respond to a world full of this sort of information and noise? How does a person move through a world that seems increasing caught in the throes of a collective insanity? Is it possible to navigate such a world blindly, to try and shut that insanity out? Is it dangerous to do so, even if shutting out that insanity is the only way to safely navigate the cacophony or chaos?

There is an incredible bleakness in this perspective. Malorie is a woman who seems to live her life in denial, even with regard to her pregnancy. Visiting the doctor, her sister sarcastically articulates Malorie’s perspective. “Doctor, don’t you know that if you just ignore a thing it goes away?” Later on, when Malorie meets a man called Douglas, the two ruminate on whether this blissful ignorance and self-containment is the only way to successfully navigate the chaos of the outside world. Bird Box is a film that speaks to the present moment.

However, these is also something more fundamental at play in Bird Box, a more primal fear about parental responsibilities and familial connection. How do parents protect their children from the chaos of the world around them? How does one raise children in a world that seems on the verge of tearing itself apart over everything from climate change to racism? Is it the duty of a responsible parent to lie to their children, and to themselves? Malorie grapples with these questions.

Can’t see the forest for the trees.

Malorie clashes with Tom over this issue, about how best to prepare children for survival in a nightmarish world. Malorie insists on teaching children the harsh reality of the world in which they find themselves, but Tom advocates for something else entirely. “They deserve dreams,” Tom tells Malorie. “They deserve love. They deserve hope.” It is an argument that any parent will recognise, even if they have only argued it internally. Bird Box just literalises it in the midst of an apocalyptic invasion by monsters that drive people insane.

These are all big ideas, and Bird Box suffers a little bit from this level of abstraction. Indeed, the structure of the film is pretty much a collection of stock horror movie beats, told very simply and straightforwardly. It seems at though Bird Box spends so much of its time on big ideas that the finer details have just been moved across from any number of less ambitious and much more conventional horror films. There is a survival horror film in which Malorie guides two children to safety, intercut with a sequence in which a bunch of strangers are trapped in a house together.

These plots are par for the course in terms of horror cinema. Malorie’s journey through the wilderness with the two children harks back to The Road, right down to the central metaphor of what it means to be a parent in a world that is falling to pieces. The scenes with the strangers in a tight space together evoke everything from Night of the Living Dead through to Hotel Artemis. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer even teasingly acknowledges this, with a sly dialogue reference to Dawn of the Dead, when one character suggests living in a supermarket.

To be fair, this cookie-cutter plotting is not a huge problem for the film. There is a reason that these two plot templates are fair stock horror movie storylines. They work relatively well. Indeed, they are largely dependent on the direction and casting. Susanne Bier offers a very straightforward no-frills style, which is probably for the best given the high concepts in the script. Bird Box works in large part because the direction is so clean and so unfussy. The audience trusts that Bier will show them what they need to see, as clearly as possible.

“Well, this isn’t the Ocean’s 8 reunion that I think either of us had planned.”

Similarly, the cast features a number really great performers who play well in very conventional roles; Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, B.D. Wong, Tom Hollander, Danielle Macdonald. These actors are largely playing broadly drawn horror movie archetypes, to the point that many of the narrative developments are awkwardly signposted by the various characters from the outset. Still, there is enough charm in watching these actors play off one another that it works.

Bird Box is a great high-concept horror, a film with big ideas and a very non-nonsense execution. It is perhaps a little too straightforward and conventional in some respects, but it manages to engage with some very provocative notions without ever losing control of itself. Definitely one to see.

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