Not Much to See Here

Bird Box, Directed by Susan Bier, Netflix, 2018.

“If you look, you will die.” This is the opening salvo Malorie (a bristling, fierce and stone-faced Sandra Bullock) barks to the two doe-eyed children, called “girl” and “boy,” huddled before her in the crumbling embrace of an abandoned house. Five years after invisible demons invaded the globe and decimated the fabric of technological civilization by forcing those who witness them to commit suicide, her only remaining option for continued survival is to undergo a ludicrously dangerous trek upriver, piloting blind. Their destination? The compound a voice promises her through two-way radio, a “safe place” somehow sheltered from the monsters we never see.

Bird Box then reels back to Malorie’s blinkered existence as a melancholy, agoraphobic artist, bitter about her unexpected pregnancy and staunchly resistant to any entreaties from her sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) to venture outside. However, compelled by the niggling sense of duty to her obstetrician (and despite increasingly alarming news coverage of unexplained mass suicides on television), Malorie agrees to have Jessica drive her to the hospital for her prenatal ultrasound. On their way home – as crowds around them seethe with rising hysteria – Jessica sees one of the creatures and deliberately crashes the car, then gets out and walks in front of a speeding bus. Malorie somehow escapes, unscathed, and Tom (Trevante Rhodes), an Iraq war veteran, helps her to a house nearby, already full with the newly shut-in, including Douglas (John Malkovich), an acerbic, shotgun toting thrice-married alcoholic who reminds Malorie of her abusive father, and Charlie (Lil Rel Howery), a cashier from the nearby supermarket, and aspiring novelist. Charlie proves to be the most coherent (and, accordingly, disbelieved) prophet foretelling this “end game . . . the end of us.” He deduces from his studies on the internet that the creatures draw their substance from people’s worst fears, driving them insane through devastating despair. The judgment enacted by the creatures courses through the film as a relentless, rapacious shadow of death, an evil concentrated on crushing those it devours and reducing those still alive to the ultimate in paranoid vigilantism. All electronic communication has been wiped out, but Greg (BD Wong) thinks they can use the home security cameras to picture the creatures via negative space. He mistakenly assumes that this is “neutered information . . . just pixels and heat,” but he also dies – tied to the chair in front of the monitor like the doomed victim of a faulty criminal investigation.

Bird Box inspired a lot of internet memes after its release, most of them a closeup of Bullock’s blindfolded face. We live under a culture of mass surveillance, recorded by thousands of CCTV cameras, satellites, home security systems, body-cams, and electronic devices, in which the “perfect information” revealed by video footage serves as the arbiter of truth, even though video itself can be falsified; we all know we are being watched, but we don’t know who is watching, or where, or why, or what they intend to do with what they see. In addition, most of these watchers are not even human, but instead artificial intelligence programs (ranging from face recognition technology, personal assistants, airport scanners, and even customized advertising) that silently, inexhaustibly, and secretly record all of our fumbles, flaws, and seemingly private altercations. How do we decide who – and what – to trust when we have outsourced our senses to electronic devices and computer data that can be deleted, manipulated, and hacked? In Bird Box, the characters escape this omniscient horror by deliberate obfuscation, narrowing their perspective to the distorted prism of the blindfold and the noises in the woods (eerily quiet throughout except for the birds in the box that girl carries with her, which serve as an advance warning system).

While Bird Box intends to be an exploration of conventional definitions of motherhood; how we frame knowledge as access to sight; and the misalignment between human cravings for intimacy and the literal/figurative walls we construct, to me it flapped along in a series of missed opportunities. Susanne Bier’s direction capably strings the tension – heightened by a haunting musical score – but the themes it attempts to illustrate are gauzier than any blindfold. Bullock’s troubled family history supposedly forges the type of iron will required to deal with extreme threat; she calls the kids “boy” and “girl” instead of true names in an act of intentional dissociation, as if their lack will prevent them from forming a deadly degree of affection. She lets her children have no dreams of the outside – the outside she was afraid to enter – for fear they will never be able to see anything they could imagine. However, the threesome’s dramatic sequence of separation, loss, and reunion in the latter half of the film – catalyzed by the confusion of navigating through the hallucinatory voices projected by the demons – cements Bullock firmly in the ferocious “Mama Bear” category.

There are many types of blindness, and what we define as “blind” comes from our history as creatures biased toward physical vision. The only characters in Bird Box “immune” to suicidal compulsions are those labeled as mentally disturbed, crazy or deranged, figures whose ultimate goal is to violate, harm and kill the “normal” people and reveal the “beauty” of the demons, to “cleanse the world.” This caricature of demonic possession linked to mental instability perpetuates dangerous stereotypes about the violent “otherness” of those suffering from psychological struggles; the definitions of sanity, the certainties of diagnosis, and the ways we measure these phenomena are indeed fallible, but Bird Box is incapable of such nuance. Its treatment of actual blind people, saved by their absence of sight and the one group with disabilities “allowed” in this post-apocalypse, is similarly one-dimensional, if crudely benign.

As initially reported in The New York Times, some of the background disaster footage, supplied by the stock agency Pond5, came from video clips of an actual tragedy, the 2013 Lac-Megantic oil train explosion in Quebec. While officials from Netflix and Pond5 issued apologies over how the footage was used, Netflix refused to remove it, which raises the question: who is supposed to safeguard the integrity of context in film libraries? Bird Box exploits our desire for entertaining horror while engaging in the same erosion of reality as “fake news” sites, imbued with a disingenuous “happy ending” – Malorie and the kids are safe[er] than before, but they’ve just been released into a slightly bigger cage. 

  • Jennie has a degree in animal biology, loves learning unfamiliar words, and is extremely fond of God’s gift of chocolate. She lives in Zeeland, MI.

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