Awash in the Stream: Bird Box (Netflix, 2018)

As streaming services play a bigger and bigger role in the film and television industry, a lot of attention is going to their original content–but mainly streaming television shows. What about streaming movies? What hidden gems or washed up flops are hiding under the “___ Original” tab? Lets see what is awash in the stream.

Bird Box

Director: Susanne Bier

Writer: Eric Heissner

Based on Novel by: Josh Malerman

Warning: Unmarked spoilers below


      Bird Box may be the most popular movie of 2018.  Netflix very rarely releases viewership data–they occasionally announce numbers when something is a hit, and that’s it–but within a week of Bird Box’s release Netflix revealed that it had been watched by over 45 million subscribers, the highest first week views for any Netflix Original, apparently. If 45 million people had bought tickets at the average movie ticket price price (which they would not have, but just for some context) that would be a one week gross of over $400 million; Avengers: Infinity War made $247 million opening weekend. So Bird Box is a hit.

      This popularity is not without some controversy. Netflix has been accused of astroturfing a bunch of social media accounts to flood Twitter with Bird Box memes. Netflix has denied this, and several accounts that were accused of being bots turned out to be real people that just didn’t use Twitter that much but loved Bird Box. Still, the conspiracy theory that Netflix used fake social media accounts to promote the movie persist. But in my personal experience, Bird Box really is that popular. My mom, who may not even know what Twitter is, has seen Bird Box. My sister, who only watches the Starz television show Power, has seen Bird Box. My neighbor, who hasn’t heard of Aquaman and is only vaguely aware that Justice League is a thing, has seen Bird Box. And they all loved it, couldn’t stop gushing about how trippy and amazing it is. Whatever conspiracy theories people have about Twitter bots and Netflix viewership numbers, I believe that it is entirely possible that Bird Box really is doing  Avengers level numbers.

      Why it’s so popular, I don’t know. It is one of the few films Netflix has done an actual advertising campaign for–even Black Mirror only gets a single trailer, uploaded the day before it goes up–but it was pretty low-key.  It wasn’t pushed as hard as Bright, or Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and was overshadowed by Roma (which got an actual theatrical release) which appeared on the website a week earlier.. Is there a legion of Sandra Bullock fans that have put it over the top? Given that one of the big memes from it is “the lady from Bird Box,” I doubt it. Is Lil Rel a bigger star than any of us anticipated? Is it Machine Gun Kelly that’s bringing people in? We may have to burn something down if Machine Gun Kelly is a star. The simplest explanation is that a lot of people liked A Quiet Place and the premise of Bird Box is very similar, so a lot of people wanted to check it out. But even then, is A Quiet Place really that popular that a knockoff with Sandra Bullock would do this well? Bird Box’s massive popularity is in one sense a big milestone for Netflix Originals, showing that they can have the reach to compete with theatrical distribution. In another sense, the confounding nature of Bird Box’s popularity represents a worst case scenario for just what Netflix popularity entails.

      So, inexplicable popularity aside, is Bird Box a good movie? No, not really. The premise is very similar to A Quiet Place, a monster whose method of killing is so attuned to one of the five senses that survivors must relearn how to interact with the world while holed up in a small compound, with one of the main characters a pregnant woman who has to think about what it means to raise a family in such a dangerous world. Only instead of sound, it’s sight: one look at the monster, and people are immediately driven to commit suicide, often in bizarrely violent ways. People who are already mentally ill instead become devotees of the monster, and dedicate themselves to tracking down survivors and forcing them to look at it.

      The Lovecraftian premise is underutilized, as most of the film is the survivors huddled together in a house and worried about supplies–a plot that’s common with low-budget monster movies. The film starts with a flash forward to Malorie (Sandra Bullock) explaining to a boy, named Boy (Julian Edwards) and a girl named Girl (Vivian Lyra Blair) that they are to keep their blindfolds on at all times, as they navigate a river to a supposed safe compound. The trip down the river is a framing device for 2/3rds of the movie, before the main storyline catches up. The story proper begins five years earlier, the day the monster(s) appear. Malorie is a pregnant artist, and the baby’s’ father has run off. Malorie’s sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) encourages her to move out of her studio apartment and start preparing for life as mother, but Malorie doesn’t feel entirely committed to being a mother. Jessica talks about her career breeding horses, but this has no plot or thematic relevance. They see a news report about a mysterious disaster in Russia, causing mass amounts of death and sending people fleeing, but Malorie doesn’t think anything in Russia could effect her in California. After a doctor’s appointment, Malorie sees a woman commit suicide by bashing her head against a glass wall, and realizes that what was happening in Russia is effecting her in California.

     There’s a big setpiece, as Jessica attempts to drive away from the chaos, before catching a glimpse of the monster and crashing the car. Jessica commits suicide by walking in front of a truck, and Malorie flees with a huge crowd of people stampeding down the street. The sequence isn’t bad, but it is rather generic for such a unique premise. A Lovecraftian monster, which drives men mad with its’ mere appearance, showing up in crowded downtown should inspire more bizarre chaos than everybody running down the street, and some cars exploding for some reason. Malorie ends up falling down in front of a mansion, and Lydia (Rebecca Pidgeon) comes out to rescue her, only to catch a glimpse of the monster, and commit suicide by sitting in a burning car. So then Tom (Trevante Rhodes) rescues her and takes her to the mansion, where most of the movie will take place.

      In the house is a random assortment of characters, played by a random assortment of actors: There’s homeowner Douglas (John Malkovich) who is angry and spiteful all the time, Charlie (Lil Rel Howry) a grocery store clerk/aspiring author/mythology expert, Greg (BD Wong), a neighbor who lives just long enough to mention his husband and has no real discernible personality, Cheryl (Jacki Weaver), an old woman, Lucy (Rosa Salazar) a police officer in training, and Felix (Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker) a drug addict who says things like “We’re fucking fucked,” (exact quote. This screenwriter is an Academy Award winner). They are later joined by Olympia (Danielle Macdonald), who is also pregnant and with a due date within days of Malorie. Two pregnant women, with due dates so close together, ending up in the same house in the middle of the apocalypse, is just a random coincidence that is never commented on or explained in any way.

      The characters are at best two-dimensional, either spiteful jerks or selfless martyrs. Even after checking Wikipedia several times, I’m still not sure if I’ve listed them all. Tom says he has a sister, but never seems to care about trying to find her or see if the rest of his family is alive, instead falling in love and dedicating himself to Malorie, for some reason. They have no romantic chemistry, and the relationship only makes sense as him getting horny for one of the only four women he’s seen for several months. On the other end is Douglas, who is unendingly snide and angry. Malkovich is having the time of his life here, almost every line he has is shouting a sarcastic insult. Everybody else is kind of just there.

     Eventually, they run out of food, and decide to make a supply run to the supermarket where Charlie used to work. One minor story beat here I want to highlight: Charlie says he locked up the supermarket before fleeing–which is a pretty high-level of dedication to your job in the middle of the apocalypse, but sure–so there should be food there. Everybody gets upset that he didn’t tell them earlier, and Malorie calms things down with “now we know.” But: ‘there is food at the hastily abandoned supermarket’ is not really something you would need an insider tip to figure out, and the issue isn’t that they don’t know where to find food, but how to travel outside to get it without risking seeing the monster. They black out the car windows, and use GPS and proximity sensors to get to the market. While there, they encounter a monster-worshipper, and Charlie sacrifices himself in a confusing death to save them. Malorie finds a birdcage, and realizes that birds are immune to the monster and can be used as a warning system. That night, Felix and Lucy decide to steal the car and runaway, for some reason; the house has just restocked on supplies, and there’s no reason to think there’s anybody else out there doing any better. But that is there lone contribution to the plot, and they disappear never to be referenced again.

     Another survivor, Gary (Tom Hollander) shows up. Gary says he was at another refuge, until escaped inmates from a criminal asylum broke in, with the intent to force everyone to look at the monster. Gary is evasive on if he looked at the monster, and spoiler, he’s looked at it. Malorie and Olympia both go into labor at the same time, and Gary makes his move, smashing all the covered windows forcing people’s eyes open to look at the monster. Everybody except Malorie and Tom are killed.

     Five years later, Tom and Malorie have relocated to a cabin by a river, where they forage for supplies and raise Malorie and Olympia’s children. Malorie refuses to give the children actual name, preferring “Boy” and “Girl” to avoid any sentimentality. Tom is not a fan of this, but not enough to just name them himself. He also appears to have forgotten about his sister, or any other family he may want to check on. They make radio contact with another group of survivors, who say there’s a compound located up the river. Malorie is suspicious that it could be a trap by monster-worshippers, but Tom wants to go. A group of monster worshippers find their hideout, and Tom sacrifices himself so that Malorie and the kids can flee. Malorie decides to go up the river to the compound. They wipe out in some rapids, but nobody is hurt–not even the birds they keep in a shoebox.

    The climax of the film is Malorie and the kids blindly wandering around a forest, while the monster uses auditory hallucinations–which it can apparently do–to try to get them to remove their blindfolds. Malorie apologize to Girl for being so harsh on her. The monster chases them–since it would make no sense for the monster to actually appear on-screen, it’s mostly implied via wind. When the monster shows up earlier, the unnatural wind is creepy, but when it’s actually full-on chasing people through the woods, it mostly just seems like the monster is invisible, or maybe their outrunning a strong gust of wind.

    They reach the compound, which is a school for the blind, with a courtyard and glass ceiling. Malorie is finally ready to embrace being a mother, and gives the kids names–the Boy is Tom, and Girl is Olympia (Olympia had earlier told Malorie she wanted to name her daughter after a Disney princess–Ariel, or Jasmine, or maybe even Cinderella, with ‘Ella’ for short. Malorie just straight up ignores this request completely).

     Bird Box is not a smart movie. It’s overstuffed with thin characters, who serve little purpose. There are multiple scenes of characters blindly firing guns around, including one guy firing a shotgun in the direction of two newborn babies. The film has a unique premise, but little idea what to actually do with it–there are maybe two sequences that do anything with the ‘don’t look’ idea, but most of the story would be the same if they were hiding from zombies. Sandra Bullock gives an engaging performance, which elevates the film from anonymous Netflix Original horror movie to regular B-level horror movie. The score, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is also very good.

     So, what to make of Bird Boxs inexplicable popularity? Why is any film popular? What made A Quiet Place so big? The real story is how film media didn’t really pick up on it until after it was matching Star Wars in viewership. While this proves that a Netflix Original film can be as popular as any theatrical film, it also shows that it’s a different type of popularity. While most concerns about Neflix/online streaming are about undercutting something like Roma–a technical and artistic masterpiece, something created to provide a unique experience in a theater, that cannot be fully appreciated on a television–the real issue is a loss of cultural primacy. A massively popular film is an event, something that exists out in the world, where you go out and see it and everybody has something to say about it. Bird Box is a different type of popular, more like viral content. It appears online, trends on Twitter, mutates into memes and a Bird Box challenge. It’s time in the spotlight feels short, trending just below the crazy Trump moment of the day or whatever new meme will come along. Not every blockbuster is a classic–Avatar is one of the most popular films of all time; can you name two characters from it without looking it up?–but they take up a lot of space for a while, inspiring articles and analysis. But writing about Bird Box has been few and far between. Instead, it’s mainly just memes. Commentary that’s mostly “You know that scene in Bird Box where…?” If a relatively small horror movie grossed $400 million at the box office, everybody would be falling over themselves to get the hottest take on it, is it saving horror, is it overrated, which films are better, should it win an Oscar, etc.

     There is a lot to be said about it, if anybody is looking for an angle for a Bird Box hot take. The Root has an article arguing the monster is a metaphor for racism, some other Gizmodo site has an article arguing it’s a metaphor for social media. There’s some political subtext–the monster comes from Russia, a news report says the (unnamed) president has closed all US borders, and at one point Douglas says “We’re making the end of the world great again!” Yet the thinkpieces have been sparse, outpaced by celebrity tweets–Kim Kardashian likes it! Kanye West has yet to comment–and the memes.

    Is this the end of cinema? No. Bright was treated more like a traditional blockbuster, but people expected that to be big–a high-concept Will Smith buddy cop movie is a guaranteed hit. Film media just need to adjust the concept of surprise Netflix hit. From when I started writing this article this week to when it’s published, a Bird Box challenge has started (it’s just going around with a blindfold, as far as I can tell)  which netted a “what dangerous trend are the kids into” piece on local news, and the Bird Box popularity vortex has begun to suck in people that write about film.  And movie ticket sales have gone up this year, so traditional theaters are still going to exist, even if Netflix can be a blockbuster machine. But it is a trailblazer in being overwhelmingly popular and still totally easy to ignore.


Hidden Gem or Washed Up Flop? Washed Up Flop