Bird Box Is Bad and Netflix Should Feel Bad – Review #21.1

Fuck Bird Box.

But, like, actually though.

Bird Box is a genuinely offensive movie on multiple levels. The most significant, one that’s been hit on by other, smarter people, is the fact that this movie about evil wind that makes people commit suicide demonizes the mentally ill. It’s not a joke; in Bird Box, mentally ill people are dangerous monsters who must be avoided if not killed.

In Bird Box, only people who are already quoteunquote crazy (as in, have been or should be committed) can look into the wind and see something beautiful instead of death-inducing. Everyone else needs to cover up the windows and wear blindfolds and whatever. But because the wind, being wind, can’t actually do anything, it needs the “crazy” people to do its dirty work.

And that’s awful.

I am of the general opinion that if something is going to be awful, then it must at least be good. I sort of touched on that in my last video on Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, but it is part of this broader conversation about cultural acceptability that we are all having right now.

One that, I think, often misses what really matters – not what is said, but how and why it’s said. This is Central to the comedy debate in particular, but that’s a whole other thing.

In the case of Bird Box, there is some potential for leniency because I think it’s fair to assume that the creative team behind Bird Box wasn’t actively working to demonize the mentally ill in their spooky wind movie. But why give leeway if they’ve got nothing else to say?

At its core, Bird Box is a story about motherhood. It flashes between the apocalypse itself, during which Sandra Bullock is unhappily pregnant, and years later, when she’s unhappily warding two children: Boy and Girl. After hearing of a safe place on the radio, she and the children get in a canoe, blindfolded, and head down river.

But if The Babadook is a serial killer’s diary, Bird Box is a phone book.

On the river, it’s just them. In the apocalypse, a rag tag group of immediately recognizable strangers – John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes, BD Wong, Machine Gun Kelly, etc. – adds a whole bunch of nothing. The fact that they aren’t on the river, which you know before you even know they exist, means that things aren’t gonna work out.

In a better movie, that could mean something. Annihilation tells you minutes in what happens to Leena’s squad, but that fits in with its broader themes of self-destruction. It’s not a film about survival – in fact, it’s the opposite. But Bird Box is about survival, so knowing who makes it to the boat is just a spoiler.

An irritating one, because every time you’re with the ensemble, you’re just anticipating their demises. Eagerly, because every single actor is given material far below them – including the rap devil himself. The interpersonal drama is, to put it lightly, worthless.

And it just pads that runtime.

I initially missed the first 20 minutes because my family doesn’t like watching movies with me – can’t imagine why – and still thought it was 20 minutes too long. Going back just made it feel 40 minutes too long.

But somehow none of that is the most frustrating thing about Bird Box. No, where it truly goes off the rails is in its flailing attempts at horror. This is because Bird Box never commits to the thing that makes it scary: claustrophobia.

These characters are locked in a house, windows boarded; they are trapped. They know that something is out there but they don’t really know what. But the house is too big to feel the confinement. If someone is mad at someone else in the big house, they can just go elsewhere. Big important things can happen without anyone else knowing about it. Except you. You know everything.

Every time the camera (and therefore the audience) is stuck with the characters, it feels right. But inevitably it pulls back to reveal, what exactly? The car scene early on is a perfect example. A handful of characters are in a car; they have newspapered up the windows and are navigating using a clever combination of GPS and the car’s collision detection systems. This is cool.

Outside, bad things are happening. So when you’re in there with them, and everything is shaking and the collision detection warnings are going crazy, you’re on the edge of your seat… but then it cuts to outside, where there is nothing but wind. Ugh.

Last week, I saw Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men for the first time in a decade. I had written most of the above already, but the thing that I’m talking about was so perfectly crystalized there. It’s not fair for an infinite number of reasons to compare these two movies, but Children of Men uses a limited perspective so gosh darn brilliantly that I can’t help doing so. Because Children of Men succeeds by keeping you in one place at all times. You are never more aware of what is going on than Theo. In a car, the camera sits there with him. You’re always tense.

The closest Bird Box gets to that is a moment on the river when in the fog she hears the voice of someone telling her that it’s okay and she can take off the blindfold. This time, she’s actually in danger, and neither she nor you know where that danger is. She pulls out a gun and fires into the nothingness, and there is real tension – before the poorly staged payoff. For a few brief moments is the promise of a much better, if still fundamentally bad, movie.

But so what, right? People make bad movies all the time – much more often than they make good ones. Bird Box should just be a blip, like so many other things. But it wasn’t. It was the biggest goshdamn thing in the entire world. It’s still a big enough deal that I don’t feel that weird coming in and complaining about it a full three weeks after release. And it is infuriating. Because the reason that it blew up is not because it’s good but because Netflix decided it was the Next Big Thing. It’s Bright but burning so much brighter. Netflix has incredible market penetration and marketing and the things it decides are worthy of being a phenomena are an insult to the genuinely amazing films that they have on the service. For gosh’s sake, ROMA is a Netflix exclusive but you didn’t see any viral memes about house cleaning or familial abandonment.

So #relatable

Netflix’s ability to drive the cultural conversation is slightly alarming, because they have never been a real content curator, and as they pump out original series week after week, burying everything under the weight of a handful of typically star-studded productions that they feel represents… something.

And it’s nice that Bird Box, like Bright, is not part of an established franchise. It may be a literary adaptation, but so was the best movie of last year; but that isn’t enough. There are so many original stories on Netflix, and if it wasn’t for Netflix trying to convince me I should, this particularly one would have never even hit my queue, let alone my actual TV. Bird Box does things that a dozen movies have already done better, including several from the same freaking year. But if A Quiet Place is an uncommonly good busking violinist, Bird Box is a man fistfighting a Christmas tree.

And you know what? I’m not even going to explain that one.

Three Point Zero out of Ten

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