There is one underlying reason that Bird Box, the latest film by director Susanne Bier and writer Eric Heisserer, doesn’t ultimately work: the audience can see. The underlying fear fueling Bird Box cannot be shared, cannot be felt by the audience. The medium of film depends on visuals, depends on sight, so to try and capture the dread of characters who suddenly have the sense of sight taken away, within a medium dependent on visuals is, well, antithetical to the entire idea of the art form.
While it is usually worthless to compare a novel to a film based upon it, it is probably notable to highlight the reason the book works so well, while the film flounders a bit. As a reader, we cannot see, we only have the words of description by the author to fill our minds. So in a story like Bird Box, in which the fear is fueled mostly by the inability to see a literary approach seems a more effective means to approach the theme. For instance, this excerpt from the book describes a man trying to get water from a well while blindfolded, the threat unseeable:
“He steps towards the well again. Before reaching for the rope, he touches the cobblestone lip. He runs his fingers across it. He is determining how wide it is.
Could you fit in there? Could someone fit in there?
He isn’t sure. He turns towards the house, ready to leave the bucket where it is. Then he turns back to the well and begins turning the crank, fast.
You’re hearing things. You’re losing your marbles, man. Get this thing up. Get back inside. Now.
But as he cranks, Felix feels the very beginning of a fear that could grow too big to handle. The bucket, he thinks feels the littlest bit heavier than it normally does.”
See how much tension that carries when the audience can’t see the well, can’t see what could be inside it? That is the crux of the problem with the film version of Bird Box.
There is also another problem, Bird Box breaks the old cinematic adage, “show don’t tell”. There is a flurry of exposition and sloppy dialogue at the beginning of the film that sets the stage for the apocalyptic setting of the film. This is not only narratively lazy, it is disorientating and unnatural. It is hard to bond with a room full of characters being introduced at the same time when all they are doing is shouting different pieces of exposition.
So, to get this straight, Bird Box somehow manages to show everything that it shouldn’t, all while telling everything that it should show. This makes the film feel like a Venn Diagram of missed cinematic opportunity. The good news, however, is that in that tiny sliver of the diagram’s center is the part of the film that works.
This part, the compelling and effective part, focuses on the personality clashes and ethical dilemmas of the survivors. Much like Romero’s best zombie films, Bird Box becomes less about the monsters outside and more about the monstrous part of humanity inside. This is when the film feels prescient, engaging, and emotionally moving.
Symbolic of this portion is John Malkovich. He stands at the center of the film raging, going full Malkovich for the entirety of his screen time, and it is glorious. It captures everything that the film does well. It displays the darkness and the tension of humans. The danger we supply that often outweighs the danger of outside forces. We are quite skilled at betraying and destroying each other without the help of an apocalyptic event.
Considering all of this, the failures and the successes of Bird Box, it becomes a bit of conundrum to come to try to deem the film either bad, good, or great. The truth is that it is a little of all of these options. The film features great moments, is sprinkled with good ones, and is eventually torpedoed by bad and ineffective ones. This makes it a momentary compelling but ultimately disappointing watch.