Post-apocalyptic settings have become something of a cinema staple. We just can’t get enough of them and our fascination with how the world will end – or come close to it – shows no signs of abating. The downside of such popularity is that the supply of truly original ideas soon starts to run dry, and familiarity becomes the name of the game.
Such is the case with Bird Box, the latest from Susanne Bier, who was behind TV’s The Night Manager. Best described as a sci-fi thriller, it rings a very loud bell in places although, unlike Annihilation earlier in the year, it’s not one that cries out for the big screen. This time the world has been taken over by creatures which, once seen – even for a split second – play on people’s weaknesses and make them commit suicide. The opening scenes see Malorie (Sandra Bullock) preparing herself and two children for a dangerous trip down river to what promises to be safety. And they have to wear blindfolds. But the main part of the film is taken up with the events leading up to this point: she’s one of a group of survivors all holed up together in a suburban house while the creatures rampage around outside.
We’re into sensory deprivation territory, this time sight, but immediately prompting thoughts of John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place. So much so that the earlier stages of the film could easily have been a pilot for that excellent nerve jangler but, although the similiarities are undeniable, Bier’s approach is different. Krasinski’s offering was deeply scary, and the compulsory silence played a huge part in that, but lack of sight doesn’t offer quite the same level of cinematic fear, so Bier gives us a thriller instead. She doesn’t aim to turn your knuckles white but creates a tense adventure with some thoughtful themes woven into its fabric.
Unlike A Quiet Place, the creatures never reveal themselves on screen: sounds and gusts of wind alone denote their presence. All we have to go on are the reactions of the characters who see them: making the audience use its imagination and conjure up something that’s probably far worse than the reality is an old trick, but still nonetheless effective. Equally, we also get to see what it looks like from the inside of the blindfold: it’s not totally dark because fabric lets in a little light, but any images from the other side are vague and blurred, and all the more menacing for it.
Motherhood is the prevailing theme, with Bullock’s Malorie at the centre of it. She reluctantly takes on a maternal role in more ways than one, appearing harsh with the children at the outset and less than enthusiastic about her own pregnancy. Even when she forms a relationship with Tom (Trevante Rhodes in a thoughtful performance) she’s the practical, resourceful one, he’s the dreamer and she gives him a hard time about it. It’s only when we see the depth of her attachment to the youngsters that her emotional brick wall comes crumbling down and it’s one of the best, most compelling scenes in the film. Bullock is excellent, forever holding people at a distance, shying away from committing herself to any kind of relationship, partly because of her own nature and partly because of the perilous circumstances surrounding her and the other survivors.
The film has an annoying habit of slipping into conventional tropes: the group of people forced to live together in a house, the vulnerability of the children and a character introduced comparatively late into the action who is clearly there just to cause more trouble. Despite that, Bird Box is well acted, thoughtful and doesn’t under-estimate your intelligence or the power of your imagination. Just don’t expect a jump-in-your-seat horror.
Freda Cooper | [rating=3]
Sci Fi, Thriller | UK cinemas, 13 December (2018): Netflix, 21 December |Netflix | Dir. Susanne Bier | Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, Danielle Macdonald, Sarah Paulson and Tom Hollander.