Monday, January 07, 2019

I watched Bird Box so you don't have to

If you like a badly made, entirely predictable, not-very-scary, high-concept pseudo-horror thriller that scrapes the very bottom of the genre-cliche barrel, then go ahead and watch Bird Box, the latest craze movie from Netflix.  If you just want to know what all the fuss is about (because FOMO) and what the title refers to, then read on.  I will save you two hours of your life that I wish I had back.

Needless to say, this post contains spoilers.  Not that this matters very much.  The Big Reveal at the end is exactly what you would expect from a movie that revolves entirely around people having to go about their daily lives blindfolded for five years.  And no, I have not yet given anything away, other than that you can in fact predict the ending after watching the first five minutes of the film.

So in the first five minutes we learn that 1) Sandra Bullock has to take her two young children on a very dangerous journey down a river, 2) they have to wear blindfolds or they will die, and 3) they aren't taking anyone else with them.  Then we flash back five years to before They came and learn that They are... well, we never really find out what They are.  All we know is that if you catch a glimpse of one of Them you go crazy and kill yourself.  Which is actually a not-entirely-unreasonable premise for a horror movie, except for one thing: not only do we never learn what They are (aliens?  supernatural beings?  a defense department research project gone wrong?), not a single character in the film ever expresses even the slightest bit of curiosity about the answer to this question.  Our collection of protagonists makes exactly one attempt (and an extremely lame one at that) to figure out a way to actually "combat" Them.  I put "combat" in scare quotes because the only thing they actually do is try to find out if it's safe to look at Them through a security camera feed.  (You get two guesses what the answer turns out to be.)

Since you have now been adequately warned about spoilers I'll go ahead and tell you: the way they conduct this experiment is to strap a volunteer to a chair set up in front of the computer screen displaying the feeds from the security cameras.  And then they all leave this person alone in the room until they hear a thumping sound, which turns out to be the volunteer flailing around and, very conveniently, managing to tip the chair over at the precise moment that the rest of the crew bursts back into the room, and at the precise location where his fall will smash his skull open on some stonework and kill him so that no one has a chance to save him so they can ask any embarrassing (or, worse for the plot, enlightening) questions.

So the ground rules established for the world are: They are deadly to look at, even through a video camera, and they can (apparently) fly (Their arrival is always heralded by a gust of wind, rather like a dementor)... and that's it.  But They can't go inside.  That's all we ever learn.  Instead of a film about people trying to figure out how to fight these things, it's instead a movie about people flailing around trying to get to the grocery store when they can't see.  Seriously.  Like a full quarter of the movie is about this.

There are a few other elements that get thrown into the mix: not everyone who catches a glimpse of Them dies.  Some people get turned into psuedo-zombie evangelists who go around trying to get survivors to look at Them (because "They're beautiful!")  These pod-people can act like regular folks for a while, so it's hard to tell them apart from actual survivors who need help.  This leads to some heart-wrenching decision making that sometimes goes wrong.  Oh, and when They are nearby, birds will squawk and flap around, so Sandra Bullock acquires some pet birds, and before she goes down the river she puts them in a cardboard box with air holes (bird box, get it?) to take with them as an early warning system.  Not that this actually seems to do any good.  Despite having the birds around, it's not safe to look at the outside world even for a moment because, although They are not always present, They have a knack for showing up a the most inopportune moments, and the birds are apparently not reliable enough to allow taking even the slightest chance.  So there's a lot of time spent flailing around and paying out fishing line to try to find one's way back from whence one came.

Oddly, though, despite the fact that a lot of effort seems to go into finding ways to get around without being able to see -- including echolocation and the aforementioned fishing line trick -- one handy gadget that is unaccountably absent is a good long stick.  You'd think that after five years the heroes would either have the echolocation trick honed to a fine art, or they would have made themselves some nice white canes and they would never leave home without them.  But no.

Despite all this, Bird Box could still have been a reasonably satisfying thriller, except for one thing: because the opening scene includes only three characters, Sandra Bullock and her two kids, it's not hard to figure out the fate that befalls every other character that is introduced in the rest of the movie. So we don't have to wonder if the the black guy gets it.  The only thing we get to speculate about it when it will happen.  In what order will the other characters be dispatched so that we can finally get to the trip down the river and maybe see something that we didn't already know was coming half an hour ago.  (In retrospect, we should have turned this into a drinking game.  It would have helped take the edge off.)

Alas, the trip down the river is just as hackneyed and cliched as the setup.  Here is all you need to know: it's cold.  It takes a long time.  There are rapids.  Someone has to take their blindfold off to navigate the rapids.  Everyone ends up in the water, some more than once.  And neither children nor birds nor leading characters die.

Yes, the birds, still in their titular cardboard box, manage to somehow not only survive being dunked in a class 5 rapid, but to be recovered afterwards, still in the box (whose lid was not actually secured in any visible way), by people wearing blindfolds!  If that doesn't make you groan, nothing will.

In the end there is very little redemption.  Sandra Bullock has gotten a little less grinchy about being a mother, and at the end finally gives the kids proper names after having called them simply Boy and Girl for their entire lives.  But that's pretty much it.  Everyone else we've met is dead (and that's not even a spoiler!)  We are no closer to knowing anything about Them than we were at the beginning, so humanity is still fucked.

Except blind people.  I guess that's supposed to be the big reveal.

You're welcome.


Unknown said...

Good review. The movie had the feel of having been "written" by machine learning algorithms, recycling plot elements from previous films with the objective of maximizing viewership, kind of like an adult version of one of those surprise egg videos.

Ron said...

> Good review.