Josh Malerman’s novel Bird Box was disturbing, spinning a story around a mother struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity is threatened with extinction. What initially appears to be a European illness quickly transforms into a widespread epidemic that ties directly to shadowy creatures we never quite see directly. From a normalized camera perspective, the audience sees the past when the problem began, the time surrounding the mother’s pregnancy, and the present as she leads two children down a river. The evil isn’t immediately evident but it’s ramifications are palpably made real as director Susanne Bier shows various friends and strangers lose their minds, and commit suicide by extreme measures.
Malorie Shannon (Sandra Bullock) must protect two children (Julian Edwards and Vivien Lyra Blair) from the threat to humanity outside, but hers is not a maternal instinct at all. Instead, she is forced into their protective custody by fate, as the world around her crumbles. The threat is made intimate when Malorie’s sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson), the witty, upbeat, positive one loses her mind to the effects of the Medusa-like evil, and nearly kills Malorie in the process.
In the midst of suburban home where she takes refuge, Malorie finds herself entangled by necessity with the selfish home owner, Douglas (John Malkovich), and a host of other characters played by television and film talent like Lil Rel Howery (Get Out), BD Wong (Mr. Robot), Danielle Macdonald (Dumplin), and Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom). While each of them will have a part to play in Malorie’s narrative, only Trevante Rhodes’ Tom stands out.
The majority of characters portrayed throughout the film are there as communal filler. They exemplify the meanness of human nature, the failure of relationships, and the nature of isolation that Malorie experiences even before her ‘family’ hits the water in their little craft. But Tom is different; Tom is the war vet who drops pithy comments in the midst of the fraught tension, like “What is this for if they don’t have anything to believe in? Surviving is not living. Life is more than just what is, it’s what could be, what you could make it. They deserve love, and dreams, and hope.”
Tom’s voice is the viewpoint of hope in Malorie’s otherwise cynical life. She’s pregnant because her boyfriend slept with her and then left; she has no interest in raising a child, and doesn’t have the first idea about how to do it. Inside of the house, there are more voices to cloud her otherwise hopeless, depressed position, or argue for a better way. Some of the survivors believe that humanity has been found wanting and is reaping judgment; another argues that they let others into the house because they “remember what it feels like to be on the outside.”
While the film has drawn comparisons to A Quiet Place or M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, the nuances here are different. Malorie’s perspective is not that of a parent who loves her children and makes obvious, intentional sacrificial decisions on their behalf, but instead, is one of self-contained organism with little-to-no moral compass who discovers through the blessing of community what it means to really love someone other than herself. While some may find the film lacking in jump scares or intensely-detailed monsters akin to Alien here on Earth, Bier’s care for the individual shots, for the growing issues in the human community, and for what it means to truly be human prove to be more than sufficient for a psychological thriller touched by the alien or the supernatural. (Technology plays a role that could be fleshed out – in both the GPS ride the crew from the house takes with the windows of the SUV blacked out and in the way that one character doesn’t “see” the evil outside except through a webcam window, and is still impacted.)
While the path through blindness and the wilderness is long, and the film certainly dwells on the deprivation of humanity in the midst of the struggle, the ultimate payoff is recognizing the spoken hope that there is more to the world than suffering and death. While the things people have seen and experienced have damaged their worldview, there’s a salvation to be found in the woods, free of technology, in community, where hope can be found. That’s the significance of the Christian faith, too: that through the sacrifice of one, many are saved, brought into community, healed, and set on a path to focus on the good.
If only they’d have eyes to see.