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Bird Box and the Fear of Death


The Internet is a-chirping about Bird Box, the Sandra Bullock-starring post-apocalyptic thriller that achieved what The Happening failed. A pandemic of mass suicides obliterates the world’s population, while a pregnant woman, Malorie, navigates the paranoia-fueled, unstable alliances among a small group of survivors. The film splits its attention between this timeline and one five years later, in which Malorie, blindfolded, attempts to canoe herself and two children down a massive river to escape the pestilence.

Bird Box excels at cultivating paranoia and distress in the viewer. The initial, horrifying set piece depicting the rash of suicides is juxtaposed with the oppressive panoramas of thick forest and rushing water as Malorie’s tiny boat veers wildly in the hands of its blindfolded rower. The film then seamlessly turns into a chamber drama, a style that dovetails well with horror film, as Malorie, in the earlier timeline, finds shelter with a Cinematically Random group of survivors. Naturally, tensions run high and poor decisions get made.

In the vein of strong and silent female leads in films such as Alien, Shape of Water, and A Quiet Place, Sandra Bullock, who says very little, communicates so much with her eyes (when not blindfolded), posture, and movement, and effectively portrays the kind of lingering terror that seeps into a person and forever changes them. She’s unlikable, in fact, and is increasingly so as the movie goes on. Yet we root for her, as Bullock lets Malorie’s hidden depths peek through.

Unfortunately, so much can’t be said for the other characters. John Malkovich co-stars as the token asshole (and as usually, Malkovich excels at that) who ultimately makes the right choice, while Jacki Weaver and BD Wong have completely throw-away roles. Lesser-known actors Danielle Macdonald and Lil Rel Howery shine as two likable characters with backstories that make you care just a little more about them.

Thin character development aside, Bird Box still manages to draw viewers in with its daunting premise: not only do you have to be quiet and trust no one, but you can’t go outside with your eyes open. In fact, you can’t even look at the outside world through a video feed. If you do, you see the killer entity, and you die by way of suicide. The inescapability of this fact is what’s terrifying. Even the strong-willed don’t survive.

Bird Box’s shocking and distressing portrayals of suicide manage to avoid the laughability of The Happening’s similar shots. Unlike The Happening, a vaguely sci-fi thriller that suffers from M. Night Shyamalan’s tendency to oversymbolize the action (a tendency that works for The Sixth Sense and Signs but makes The Happening dreary and stupid), Bird Box starts out as a horror movie, bouncing quickly from exposition to a terrifying scene of chaos in which the suicides begin. Importantly, the victims are shown to be terrified of something, often muttering words of shame or self-blame. They don’t emotionlessly leap off a building as in The Happening.

One wonders why the entity — many suppose it’s some sort of invisible yet see-able creature—doesn’t simply kill its prey Medusa-style. Why don’t its victims simply drop dead? Why do they kill themselves? The film doesn’t explain the origins or mythology of the entity, so it’s entirely up to the viewer’s imagination. But the film wouldn’t be as frightening without the suicide element. The true terror of the movie lies in its premise that people will (1) inevitably die, which is true in the real world and (2) be unable to resist the urge to kill themselves, which, if the Internet’s response is any indication, seems to stir a common fear. By presenting suicide as an incurable disease upon mankind, the film suggests that humans have always been their own worst enemy and as a species are on a path to self-destruction.

This metaphor is further buoyed by the emergence of a separate class of people: those who do survive the Seeing and become part of a cult of acolytes who demand that others See. Although the idea is a bit underdeveloped, the film suggests that those with mental or psychological afflictions will become part of the cult. The film not-so-subtly comments on the perils of organized religion that use the threats of death and eternal suffering to compel its followers into submission. Indeed, the entity seems to be a supernatural purge of sorts, a punishment for the sins of humanity. Some reviews have described the Seeing as a confrontation of one’s worst fear, but from what we see, the fear seems to revolve around a sense of deep shame and hopelessness. Hence the suicide. The entity isn’t a Boggart turning into a giant spider; it’s whispering to people, “I know what you did, and you deserve to die for it.”

And yet Bird Box dances around these big concepts without really settling on one to drive its message. Similar films such as The Mist explored questions of death, fate, the true nature of humanity, and playing God, but did so cohesively as the plot and character dynamics developed along a mutual track. Bird Box loses that by dividing its plot into two timelines and shortening the amount of time spent in the “chamber” of the safe house, while neglecting the motivations and development of all but its main character. Despite clocking in at more than two hours, Bird Box doesn’t spend a lot of time grappling with the concepts and symbolism it’s introduced: the nature and purpose of the entity. Why it started in Russia. Why even on a crowded street only some people see it. The tragedy of suicide upon shame. The exclusion of people with mental afflictions. The nature of “seeing” as a spiritual or demonic experience. The capability (or lack thereof) of traumatized people to make rational decisions. To play God. To survive. Bird Box only teases these Big Questions and throws too much into Malorie‘s thin story, however well acted by Bullock.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

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