Netflix ended 2018 with a bang, or shall we say tweet, tweet. Its original movie “Bird Box,” starring Sandra Bullock, hit the streaming service on Dec. 21 and soon burst into a bajillion feathers, floating its way into the interwebs’ zeitgeist. As Chrissy Teigen told Kim Kardashian, “like everyone in the entire world” has seen it.
Directed by Susanne Bier and based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Josh Malerman, the film follows Malorie (Bullock), a mother who, along with two young children (appropriately named Boy and Girl), is making her way down a river, blindfolded, in an attempt to avoid supernatural entities that bring death to those who see them. The movie flips awkwardly back and forth between its past and present, explaining how Malorie first learned of the onslaught of underwhelming apocalyptic monsters alongside her sister (Sarah Paulson) and a band of survivors portrayed by Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, BD Wong and others.
“Bird Box” became a meme sensation almost immediately, even as the negative reviews poured in. Viewers, seemingly with no regard for critical consensus, turned to social media to share their own “takes” on the newest cult-like obsession. The film’s virality was due, in part, to Netflix itself, which hyped up the movie’s record-setting viewership ― despite the fact that the platform is otherwise silent on streaming numbers.
Because of the divide between fans who can’t stop tweeting about the movie and critics who can’t stop panning it, HuffPost’s Matthew Jacobs and Leigh Blickley decided to break down the supposed appeal of “Bird Box,” and whether or not it warrants the craze surrounding it.
Matthew Jacobs: When I heard a few months ago that Sandra Bullock and Trevante Rhodes were playing lovers in a new thriller, I was automatically invested. Too bad that thriller is “Bird Box,” a derivative garble that marks the newest installment in the win-some-lose-some cultural experiment that is Netflix. Those birds in that box appear to be some kind of bona fide phenomenon. What did you think of it?
Leigh Blickley: Chirp, chirp. Did you hear that, Matt? That’s the sound of me somewhat falling for the hype before fluttering the heck out of this meme-ified cage. I must admit, the star-studded credits got me a bit as well, so I flicked on Netflix and gave “Bird Box” a shot. I soon realized the “horror” movie does absolutely nothing with the slew of big-name celebrities it boasts. I mean, Sarah Freaking Paulson is in this tale of sight-seeking monsters... for all of five minutes. Witchcraft, I tell you! Do you think Netflix oversold the Bullock-Paulson “Ocean’s 8” reunion just to get us to press play?
Matt: Netflix’s latest annual tradition is to release a disappointing genre film around Christmas and then boast about its popularity. In 2017, we got “Bright” with Will Smith; this year, “Bird Box.” What fresh hell awaits 2019?
It’s like a taunt: The negative reviews pour in, so the streaming site ― which otherwise doesn’t publicize viewership data ― deflects with a not-so-humble brag that can’t be fact-checked. How convenient. But let’s take that hot air at face value for a second. In a way, it makes sense that the likes of Will Smith and Sandra Bullock would attract an insane amounts of eyeballs (blindfolded or otherwise). They are, after all, two of the biggest A-listers who have crossed over from the recent era in which movie stars drove box-office profits almost single-handedly. If anyone can nab record-setting numbers, it’s folks like Smith and Bullock ― likable, controversy-free, well-branded Hollywood vets who seem at once timely and nostalgic. That’s also what makes “Bird Box” such a letdown. It capitalizes on the caliber of its talent without actually delivering the goods.
Leigh: Yes, they promise coq au vin and serve us inedible, dried-out chicken. You’d assume locking Bullock, Rhodes, John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, Lil Rel Howery, BD Wong, etc., etc., in a boarded-up mansion being stalked by an ominous presence for days on end would deliver some compelling content, but to no avail.
Scratch that, Netflix itself found it compelling, to the point where “Bird Box” became a social media sensation overnight as they cranked out and retweeted meme after meme, touting Girl’s look of despair or Bullock’s blindfolded panic. And we fell for it! People are ending up in hospitals as they attempt the #BirdBoxChallenge. Netflix pretty much presented us with a viral campaign disguised as a D- version of “The Quiet Place,” and ended up with another hit thanks to insatiable streaming spectators.
Matt: That’s right: “Bird Box” is like a medley that samples greatest hits from “A Quiet Place,” “The Happening,” “The Mist,” “Night of the Living Dead” and “Children of Men.” It’s dystopian apocalyptic chaos ― a genre I like! ― at its most clichéd. No wonder Netflix loved it; those movies made a ton of money and/or won defining critical favor. But if “Bird Box” tells us anything, it’s that these tropes have become too easy. Roving monsters of mysterious origins? Check. A survivors’ bungalow where isolationism becomes a point of contention? Yep. Grave implications about what it would mean to bring a child into this world? Of course!
Maybe we should backtrack for a minute before we get too snarky. What, if anything, worked about “Bird Box” for you? Why do you think people gravitated to it so much?
Leigh: First off, a manic case of FOMO is the reason, I’m assuming, most people gravitated toward the movie. I hadn’t watched it until this week, but I heard murmurings for days before: “It’s sooo good!” “It’s batshit!” “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” All those reactions made me more interested in uncovering what nest these birds were flocking to. Plus, as we mentioned, Netflix pushed the film hard, setting it up with the tag line “never lose sight of survival.” That’s the hook us bored and lazy people need when we’re looking for something to watch over holiday break.
In terms of what worked for me, I have to confess: my overly charged emotions. I recently welcomed my first child and have subsequently turned into a bowl of birdseed, so you can understand how and why the Boy/Girl storyline got me. The conflict introduced at the start of the movie drew me in: a single and slightly selfish pregnant woman, Bullock, finds herself unattached to her unborn child at the dawn of the end of the world. As we come to learn, she’s left to give birth (without drugs!) alongside a fellow mother-to-be, played by “Dumplin’” star Danielle MacDonald, while a servant of an ominous force taking over mankind tries to convince them to look outside, and die.
Unfortunately, Macdonald falls victim to the monstrous, sight-seeking plague and Bullock is left to raise not only her own son but MacDonald’s daughter, whom she appropriately names Boy and Girl. We, as viewers, are thrust back and forth into past and present, where we watch a still unattached and blindfolded Bullock try to make her way to a supposed safe haven with her two terrified and blindfolded 5-year-olds, who, might I add, have grown up in a confined space with no outside interaction. Interesting stuff. Too bad it all plays out in an over-the-top manner that just sucks the sentiment out of it.
How about you, Matt? Anything particularly strike you?
Matt: This is a safe space; any and all motherly affections are valid, especially when they concern a newborn as perfect as yours.
The setup of “Bird Box” works. In uniting the two timelines, it can peel back the mystery like a blindfold being removed, understanding that the aftermath of the End Times has more narrative heft than any flashy destruction scenes can offer. Apocalypse movies are comforting because they remind us that our world is, for now, still intact, while also demonstrating just how easy it would be for everything to collapse. Global warming, overpopulation, natural disaster, meteors, terrorism, mutated science experiments ― they’re all lurking around the corner if we aren’t careful. No wonder the genre became a mainstay after 9/11, when life started seeming especially precarious for many people.
But “Bird Box” fails to give its havoc much societal weight, rushing through the inciting events in order to devote the remaining run time to self-involved bores sparring inside the house where they’ve found sanctuary. The information we get about the broader world comes from frenzied television newscasts, which Earth-threatening sagas like this one (superhero behemoths included) have adopted as a lazy shorthand for plot development. And that insight exists only as a calculation meant to introduce conflict into the central characters’ contrived predicament. The whole thing is inert, and then we don’t even get to see the monsters everyone is yelling about. Just some leaves that flutter around in uncanny shapes, which “Annihilation” did better last year. There’s just nothing thoughtful about this movie, making it perfect for a streaming service, which only requires the click of a button.
Leigh: Let’s talk about the no-monster thing for a second, shall we? A big reason moviegoers watch these apocalyptic journeys is to get a glimpse of what kind of creature, catastrophe or chaos a particular storyteller has created. We not only want to see what these monsters look like, but how they got to Earth and why they attack through sight, because ISN’T THAT THE WHOLE POINT of watching something like this?! Instead, all we get are said fluttering leaves and a few sketches of the monsters from Gary (Tom Hollander).
I remember the feeling I had when I finally got to see what the aliens in “Signs” or the sound-sensitive villains of “A Quiet Place” looked like: excitement. We go to the movies to escape our lives and to be transported, for two hours or so, to a new timeline or world. As you said, we got to watch “Bird Box” with the click of a button from our couch, because Netflix knew most of its audience didn’t need to be rewarded with a monster viewing to be satisfied. And herein lies the problem: We’ll gobble anything Netflix sells up without thinking twice about it. Why did I choose to watch “Bird Box” or “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” or “Avengers: Infinity War” over a Golden Globe-nominated film like “Roma”?
Why do we tend to opt for the viral sensation rather than the prestigious drama?
Matt: I wonder how many people were coaxed into watching “Bird Box” after seeing Netflix boast about ratings, suffering the same case of FOMO that plagued you. Make something seem like a blockbuster, and eventually it becomes one. On its own, “Bird Box” is a harmless misfire. But in the totality of Netflix’s short life, it demonstrates just how powerful such unchecked data can be. The conversation around the movie accelerated once we had that 45 million figure to latch onto, thereby letting a corporate Twitter account dictate what’s worthwhile. Even if you liked “Bird Box,” that’s a dark reality. As Netflix and its ilk scoop up more and more valuable talent who see these platforms as the future of entertainment, their content’s median quality is stagnant at best, diminishing at worst. That’ll push upscale films like “Roma” further from the fore.
If Netflix wants to make genre movies like “Bright” and “Bird Box,” more power to ’em. But as its original-programming budget soars, I wish we could trust the folks doing the greenlighting to be more discerning. Any network or distributor is entitled to some bad calls, but Netflix’s track record is disheartening. Did no one notice that “Bird Box” was a hodgepodge of clichés that devolves into nonsense? That Bullock’s whitewater-rafting sequences aren’t particularly thrilling? That something so mediocre is now Netflix’s signature movie of 2018?
We’re here to answer a question: whether or not people should people watch “Bird Box.” So, should they?
Leigh: If they want to know why they’re seemingly bumping into person after person wearing a blindfold on the street, sure. If they want to watch a good monster movie that provides a compelling storyline, thrilling scares and, well, you know, monsters, they better pass. Celebrities will come and go while watching “Bird Box,” as will laughs ― they just might not be the laughs you were hoping for. (Not sure I was supposed to giggle while Sandra Bullock macheted the heck out of some guy from a rowboat??)
If people want someone to tell them what to do, fine, here’s my two cents: Remember those five minutes of Sarah Paulson I mentioned? Those are worth a watch. The rest of this half-baked frightfest is predictably recycled. Decide for yourself whether you want to fly into the birdcage.
Matt: For a few seconds, “Bird Box” lets us believe Bullock and Paulson are lovers. As soon as you find out they aren’t, the whole thing flies away.
This story has been updated to clarify that Will Smith is in “Bright.”
This has been “Should You Watch It?” a weekly examination of movies and TV worth ― or not worth! ― your time.