Even on what appears to be a clear day, when the sky is a turquoise blue with a few wispy clouds, what you can’t see can hurt you. I was talking to another AFI FEST attendee who was suffering since the weekend from burning eyes from the ash-filled atmosphere due to the nearby California wildfires. Her eyes, she said, were as red as her lipstick one day. Monday night’s gala was subdued–this red carpet as others had been canceled, but the show must go on and “Bird Box” gave us a horror unseen and another instance of Sandra Bullock surviving when others do not.
“Bird Box” is based on Josh Malerman’s debut 2014 novel, a post-apocalyptic journey of survival by a woman who must lead two children to safety in a world gone crazy due to an unseen force.
The movie begins with a grungy Malorie (Sandra Bullock) instructing “Boy” (Julian Edwards) and “Girl” (Vivien Lyra Blair) that they must never take their blindfolds off or they will die. Following a piece of rope, they make their way to a boat and after Malorie loads the kids and supplies on the boat, she launches it into a fast-moving river. Then we flash back to five years ago.
Weird news is coming out of Russia about people committing mass suicides, but Malorie, an artist, is more interested in her art than the world outside or anyone else. Malorie is heavily pregnant and her sister, Shannon (Sarah Paulson), takes her to the hospital for a check up with Dr. Lapham (Parminder Nagra). The doctor notices how detached Malorie is. Malorie has no interest in the gender of the child and hasn’t thought of potential names. The child’s father is out of the picture, but it’s never explained why Malorie has decided to keep the child and the doctor suggests she consider adoption. From the chatter between the sisters, we learn their father wasn’t a loving parent and the two were raised on a ranch.
Before they even leave the hospital, they witness a young woman with red, tearing eyes bashing her head against a glass window on a corridor that connects the hospital wings until her head her head is bloodied. Others begin to act strangely; drivers seem to purposely drive into other vehicles. While driving her SUV, Shannon sees something; her eyes redden. Shannon flips the car and even though she survives, she walks straight into the path of a speeding vehicle. Malorie runs and stumbles to the sidewalk in front of a large house. An older couple argue–he wants his wife to stay, she wants to save the pregnant stranger, Malorie. The wife goes mad, but Malorie makes it inside the house.
The man, Douglas (John Malkovich), angrily regards Malorie, but he’s not alone and it isn’t even his house. The house belongs to Greg (B.D. Wong) and his life partner (whom we never see). Greg and Douglas had been engaged in an acrimonious law suit about alterations on Greg’s house. The house is beautiful and roomy, but it becomes claustrophobically crowded as the group adds a few more strangers.
The actions jumps back and forth between the past in Greg’s home and the present on the river. We know at some point Malorie ends up alone with two kids. Soon after the inhabitants of this house have been established, some of us will make the bet that the Asian guy (Wong) will be the first to die. And Greg does die because even looking at the creatures with the filter of digital images from CCTV causes people to commit suicide.
At one point, a group of this new household of uneasy strangers ventures to the local grocery store using a car with GPS and proximity sensors. That’s where Malorie picks up the titular birds. The birds, like canaries in the cave, can sense the nearness of the unseen entities as well as those gone insane from seeing them. At this point, the survivors of this foraging journey realize–some people do survive and become unhinged believers that one must view the creatures to see the beautiful truth. They are not technically zombies (they don’t eat brains), but they are unwilling to consider that the others, the survivors who avert their gaze and venture out briefly in blindfolds, might have a choice in the matter.
While the majority of the foraging group returns to the home base, they never have to worry about five years of car maintenance; they are betrayed by a couple who take the car. We never learn what happens to them, but the problem of betrayal from within this community won’t end here. After Malorie calls Douglas an asshole, he replies that there are only two kinds of people: assholes and the dead.
From time to time, we get to experience what the blindfolded see, briefly moving with only hints of light and darkness behind the weave of the cloth blindfold. Just how much sight is necessary to be rendered insane and could someone as nearsighted as myself wander around without glasses and be safe is never clearly explained? And while we have precious birds in a box, what happened to all the cats and dogs? The rats, coyotes, raccoons and skunks that one can see even in urban areas of Los Angeles? (A recent PETA email tells me that since August, a certain Los Angeles County city has trapped and killed at least seven coyotes.)
The main suspense is learning how Malorie ends up with two kids instead of one and, eventually, how she ends up the only adult on this journey down the river and each time we return to the river, a subtitle tells us how many hours have passed. If you can believe that someone can navigate rapids with a blindfold on and she and two children can survive their boat overturning in the rapids, this might be for you. At least it isn’t the birds attacking humanity and proving the dangers of high-hairdos with lots of hairspray. The nagging question I had was eventually answered, but wilderness seems more scenic than wild, particularly in comparison with the urban insanity of survivors, believers and the unseen suicide catalyst creature.
In Los Angeles this week, one can easily believe that what you can’t see can hurt you as so many walk around with reddened eyes, but “Bird Box” left me with too many questions and wasn’t as satisfying Bullock’s 2013 “Gravity.” “Bird Box” made its world premiere at AFI FEST on 12 Nov. 2018 and is scheduled to be released on 21 Dec. 2018 by Netflix.