Netflix’s new thriller, Bird Box, is a clunker.
The plot is functional without being much fun, jerkily hurrying the viewer along to the hinted-at climax like an usher rushing people through an amusement park. It labors to ratchet up the tension, maybe because the story already feels familiar and predictable. It’s about a parent, played by Sandra Bullock, caring for kids post-apocalypse, a scenario that in recent years has appeared in some form or another in at least The Road, The Walking Dead, and A Quiet Place. The novel twist is that society collapsed because of mysterious creatures that compel anyone who looks on them to kill themselves, forcing the survivors to blindfold themselves to stay safe.
Those survivors often play like stock types or story devices rather than real people. The dialogue strains hard to convey its ideas.
It hardly matters, though. Lots of people are going to watch it, just as Netflix knew they would.
The movie, based on Josh Malerman’s taut, tense novel of the same name, practically ticks off a checklist of decisions designed to lure viewers:
Speculative, dystopian scenario? Check.
These have long been popular in Hollywood, but the past few years have seen them picking up as audiences flock to zombie movies and even shows like The Handmaid’s Tale.
High-profile cast? Check.
Netflix managed to get the aforementioned Bullock, as well as John Malkovich and Trevante Rhodes, who is probably most recognizable from his outstanding turn in the 2017 Oscar winner for best picture, Moonlight. They’re big enough names to draw interest.
Holiday release? Check.
There’s a captive audience sitting at home and looking for things to watch during the holidays. It’s even easier to grab their attention when they don’t even need to head out to a movie theater to watch.
A proven template to follow? Check.
Audiences and critics have noted the similarities between Bird Box and A Quiet Place, which managed to be both a box-office and critical hit. The main difference between the two is which sense is at the center of the drama: A Quiet Place followed a family that had to never make noise to survive. For people who already enjoyed that movie earlier this year, Bird Box offers something they have a good chance of liking.
It’s not a bad thing in itself to give viewers what they want. But Bird Box doesn’t deliver beyond ticking the boxes. As Emily Yoshida noted at Vulture, it may not have actually been written by an algorithm, but it seems like it was.
There are a few positive points. Bullock and Rhodes in particular deliver on their performances. Malerman’s source material provides some arresting moments of tension.
From start to finish, though, Bird Box feels like it was hastily written, shot, edited, and rushed out for the holiday season. It may prove useful at pumping up Netflix’s numbers, but as a movie, it’s a lot less effective.