Content Warning: This article mentions self-harm and suicide.
‘Netflix Original.’ This term has, in recent years, taken on an almost reverent meaning, symbolizing the epitome of production, entertainment and cinematic value. Yet some of Netflix’s recent forays into originality have proven that labels are sometimes undeserved; “Iron Fist” (2017–18) and “Disjointed” (2017–18) stand out as classic examples of silver-screen flops. Unfortunately, even the company’s original movies are not exempt from failure, and “Bird Box” (2018) represents one of Netflix’s worst cinematic entries so far.
The movie starts with a bang as Mallory Hayes (Sandra Bullock) yells at two young children about the dangers of removing their blindfolds outside before it flashes back five years into the past. Malorie is pregnant, and while her sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) is visiting her, they notice news reports on TV discussing an epidemic of unexplained mass suicides in Europe. After a pregnancy checkup at the hospital, Mallory witnesses a woman hurting herself, and panic breaks lose as the phenomenon of self-harm manifests in the streets of California. Jessica succumbs to the mystery illness and Mallory barely makes it into a nearby house, where she meets a group of survivors, which includes Douglas (John Malkovich), Tom (Trevante Rhodes) and Greg (B.D. Wong). As the plot progresses, the group learns the truth about the suicides: anyone who witnesses mysterious supernatural entities immediately commits suicide, but those who are criminally insane are unaffected, and instead force others to look at the creatures. Alternating between the past and present, the movie follows Mallory during the beginning of the apocalypse and its aftermath years later, as she and the children under her care desperately try and reach a sanctuary free of the monsters’ influence.
As far as casting goes, “Bird Box” seems to have all the necessary tools for success. Bullock and Paulson are both formidable actresses with proven skill, Malkovich is a theatrical powerhouse and actors like Trevante embody charisma and warmth. However, the film’s decision to stall any meaningful character development outside of Mallory renders “Bird Box’s” spectacular cast mostly useless. Malkovich is the biggest disappointment, with his character’s constant anger becoming annoying within five minutes of his appearance onscreen. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better. In fact, most of the supporting actors are either entirely unmemorable or complete clichés, as if the writers didn’t trust anyone outside of Bullock and simultaneously decided to force-feed certain characters to the audience instead of letting natural development lead to likability. The stereotypes are all here: the loving mother clearly not cut out for the apocalypse, the angry and proven-late-too-right old man, the comic relief and plot advancement grocer. No one feels real, not even Mallory, whose character development is so linear and predictable that she may as well be an arrow despite all the ‘nuance’ desperately shoved into her character.
However, the cast is not the worst part of “Bird Box,” not by a long shot. Its hackneyed plot and terrible pacing ensure that not even the film’s action can save it from mediocrity. There are so many confusing contradictions and problems the movie may as well be called ‘Bad Box.’ The titular birds serve no purpose to the plot and are incredibly contrived; The entities suddenly gain the power to tempt you with sound in the final act; The entities are never explained in the slightest; Characters contradict their established beliefs and are used solely to move the plot along; Blindfolds protect against the creature despite not fully impairing vision; A school for the blind is accessible only by river in the middle of a forest; the movie implies that being mentally ill is what causes people to become evil missionaries for the hellish creatures. Some of these points are nitpicks, but they all contribute to a central problem: the movie breaks its established rules when it’s convenient and forces the audience to accept these breaks as logical and emotional.
Nothing else in the movie stands out in a positive and meaningful way. Because we can’t see the entities, any scares are cut off and muted before they reach a crescendo, and the film contains nothing special in the visual-effects realm. The frequent drone shots feel fresh at first but quickly become overused, and there is no magic happening behind the camera. The best that can be said is that the music is generally a good atmospheric fit, but one strength cannot negate a multitude of weaknesses.
Perhaps this criticism seems overly harsh, and it has certainly become popular to hate on “Bird Box” since Netflix released it. However, some of this hatred is deserved, because the film is at the end of the day an unoriginal mess full of choices ranging from passable to poor and rarely venturing into the realm of impactful. Even the meme it spawned quickly became a dangerous game of ‘what can you do while blindfolded without dying’ that has led to injuries and car crashes. It seems the real killer here is not some supernatural power but the movie itself, which possesses enough mediocrity to cause those who watch it to rant, rave and commit acts of sheer stupidity.