Savina Petkova on Susanne Brier’s ‘Bird Box’ (2018)
HUMANITY HAS BEEN LOSING ITS SENSES ever since Perfect Sense (2011) squashed its couple protagonists under the weight of numbness, expelling each of the five senses to refine a pure rational being, devoid of bodily sensations and affects – a perfect mind with no distractions. In 2018 we saw A Quiet Place (2018) that hushed us to sign language, challenging the notion of film as an inherently audio-visual medium, by heightening our ability to communicate with a mute frame. Based on Josh Malerman’s novel of the same name, Bird Box takes a blind twist on the post-apocalypse genre film, combining melodrama with strong (and maybe sometimes stubborn) female lead Sandra Bullock. It forms an exhilarating coming-of-parenthood, an ode to self-acceptance and altruism in times of shocking loneliness and a world gone wrong.
Malorie (Sandra Bullock) loses her sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson, touching as always) in a global tragic phenomenon, which forces people to kill themselves after allegedly seeing “it”. The source of the suicide epidemic remains unknown throughout the film, but rationalisations point to a universal myth of a dark entity that takes the form of your worst fears (think: Dementor in the Potterverse). The only way to survive is not to look: blindfolds, blocked windows, blackened screens, shattered cameras – all the equipment to make humanity blind seems to be the sole salvation, and the birds as the reliable safeguards, a living alarm of the presence of the enemy.
The film opens in flashback to narrative peak, as Malorie barks out a cold-hearted survival speech to unnamed five-year old “Boy” (Julian Edwards) and “Girl” (Vivien Lyra Blair), warning them of the extreme threats that their journey will pose (“If you look, you will die. Do you understand?”). The film exhibits Malorie’s idea of tough parenting before retrospectively showing her as a nine-month pregnant denialist, at the start of the so-called “Problem” (the circumstance of mass suicides). Binding together two pasts & one present, the narrative unfolds in an emotionally stimulating way, contrasting the survivors approach to the Problem in a typified manner – we encounter the aggressive misanthrope (John Malkovich), pregnant girl (Danielle Macdonald) that prefers to see the world through rose-tinted glasses, and the caring father-figure (Trevante Rhodes).
While the group of survivors try to build a healthy environment of trust, this circle of allegiance against the enemy force does not stand the test of the intruder (Tom Hollander), who represents the ones that talk “like they are not blindfolded” – the messengers of seeing. A perverted messianism opposes man against his fellow man to disrupt the possible collective in the face of apocalyptic danger. The film draws heavily on archetypes regarding its themes and characters, and does so righteously, as a post-apocalyptic setting bares out something primordial. A regression into pre-civilised times, this genre reveals more about un-cultured, bare life and investigates the mechanisms that make a human being precisely humane, not so differently than Children of Men (2006) does.
The spectacle of Bird Box is framed in a progressive, repetitive grammar of long shot-medium shot-close-up, combined with lurking static camera, as well as equally distributed tracking shots of slow and fast pace: the film’s dynamic is balanced, with just the right amount of jump-moments. This conventional cinematic grammar brings emotion to the fore, rather than relying on a excessively stylised aesthetics. Nevertheless, the quality of feeling this film emits is close to overwhelming, oscillating between the thrill of potential looking, or the danger of being forced to look. In its narrative and form, Bird Box tackles with its lurking antagonist in blood-freezing ways, as the horror of not seeing is overcome by the horror of seeing.
Bird Box bestows its emphasis on well-familiar themes of motherhood, a coming-of-age for protagonist Malorie and her “growing” into the role of Mother. Yet, to leave it at that would be deceiving, presupposing an ideal “mother-figure” that women should aspire to. Malorie’s character is throbbing with care and stagnated discipline and her transition from being called “Malorie” by the nameless Boy and Girl, to “Mother” of “my children, Olympia and Tom” is something more than her becoming the “right kind” of mother. The film points out the salubrious element of hope in the future.
By raising her children to know a world with no future, only an everlasting (dangerous) present, Malorie has missed the soothing power of hope. In a way, Bird Box provides a medicine for its own wounds, in the quasi-magical spirit of Hope, a deep breath for another day, for a better future that we need to attend to, starting from today. At large, Bird Box gravitates around cultural tropes of parenting, prophecy, and salvation, which makes it as much about family as about society – transcending the notion of nuclear family to speak about a global humanism, regardless of culture and religion. Raising a child in a time of grave danger is a matter of raising oneself, and not necessarily a swan song to independence or even survival. It can be a bird song for another spring.
Release: Streaming on Netflix now