“The store was packed. This thing seems serious.”
A relatively stable and somewhat morbid fascination with the apocalypse has sustained itself through years of the film industry, from The Day the World Ended in 1955 to 2012 in 2009. But COVID-19—arguably the first sudden global disaster of our lifetime—has led us to revisit our visions of the end, even launching Contagion (2011) to the second-most in-demand film online from Warner Bros. as early as March—even though it’s almost a decade old. While we may watch them for their conjectures regarding the fate of humankind, perhaps we learn more about ourselves and human nature through these hypotheses, some of which seem less ridiculous than they may have just a year ago.
Even if you have never seen Bird Box, you’re probably familiar with the basic premise thanks to the buzz garnered by the film’s release in late 2018 (and surely helped by the steep increase in Netflix subscriptions during quarantine): the apocalypse is brought about by a legion of strange creatures that drive humans to suicide when looked at. While the film may not bear as many similarities to our present-day situation as Contagion does, it bears asking what Bird Box’s apocalypse can tell us about the general speed with which panic moves in the modern age, a central premise that speaks to the way that we, as a society—both as a community and individuals—react to global catastrophe.
Based on the novel of the same name by Josh Malerman, Bird Box opens on an wide shot of a misty river, sublimely beautiful but terrifyingly powerful. A blindfolded woman named Malorie Hayes (Sandra Bullock) leads two children, similarly attired, alone through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, taking a boat down that same river toward rumored safety. The entire movie is one giant act of dramatic irony, in which we see every broken yet beautiful landscape and likewise every terror creeping up, while Malorie and the children (called only Boy and Girl), being blindfolded, remain in the dark.
The river dissolves into a shot of Malorie painting five years earlier, as she is visited by her sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) to take her to an ultrasound. Jessica’s comments about some strange world events involving mass suicides in Russia seem offhand, but quickly become real at the hospital when Malorie watches a woman kill herself (far-off crises turning into global disasters doesn’t seem so far-fetched now). Chaos ensues in the streets as the creatures arrive, with Malorie and a motley crew ending up trapped in a house (quarantined, one could say?). The rest of Susanne Bier’s (The Night Manager, Serena) film follows these survivors through their new life of covered windows and blindfolded supply runs, as well as the events that led up to Malorie, Boy and Girl’s tense and haunting river journey.
The river journey portions of the movie are absolutely gorgeous, the turbulent waters supposedly leading to a safe haven, making the river a symbol of precarious hope and of an unknown future. Malorie follows this direction as a last resort, guided only by a stranger’s radio communication. The river is seemingly endless and undoubtedly perilous, but is their only guidepost in an otherwise unknowable world; in times of crisis, the unthinkable suddenly becomes the most reasonable option forward.
But as the characters navigate the previously unthinkable, most moving and jarring are their relationships, displaying in full view the rawness that accompanies a world in which decorum, privilege and amenities no longer mask conversations and interactions. With threats all around and life-and-death decisions to be made, Malorie is at her most tense and stern with Boy and Girl, presenting a complicated relationship that generates much of the film’s emotional stakes. Imagine preparing a pair of preschoolers for a long journey with: “Under no circumstance are you allowed to take off your blindfold. If I find that you have, I will hurt you.”
Bullock’s performance stands out here and in the flashback sequences, tracking the changes in Malorie, who has always been socially isolated and becomes increasingly hardened against the new dangers of the world. Remarkable also is the chemistry between Sarah Paulson (who also co-starred with Bullock in Ocean’s 8) and Bullock in the flashback scenes that, before the story pulls Malorie in a new direction, provide a stark contrast with their normalcy and genuine, sisterly affection.
From a harrowing blind car ride in an attempt to raid a supermarket to a sudden attack along the misty river, Bird Box is not short of tension. But the tension ultimately falls flat, sequences going on for extended periods of time, resulting in a quick desensitization that almost makes some scenes seem comical. The dramatic irony in knowing much more than our doomed triad quickly gets old in a film that could have absolutely made better use of sound design to keep us on our toes almost as if we, too, are blindfolded. In the aforementioned car scene, for instance, quick camera shots outside the car reveal the presence of dead bodies lining the streets and the proximity of the creatures while its occupants navigate the outside world with windows covered, relying on feel and sound as they drive unaware and jumping at every out-of-place sound and movement. Perhaps the dead bodies were a little bit…overkill (pun intended).
The all-star cast, too, somewhat disappoints, besides Bullock and Paulson, with relatively big names like Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), Lil Rel Howery (Get Out) and John Malkovich wasted on fairly shallow roles that mostly fulfill apocalyptic archetypes like the over-prepared paranoiac and the coward-turned-protector.Many characters are simply fodder for the creatures (because what would an apocalypse be without a few deaths?), lowering the stakes: if the violent killings don’t impact us, what can? Perhaps this derives from the cuts necessary in transitioning from book to screen, but anytime one feels the urge to chuckle a bit at corny lines or stereotypical character archetypes during a murder scene, it’s probably not a good sign.
Besides some of the wide, panoramic views of nature, the film is not particularly visually interesting, either. A dull, dusty gray-and-brown palette is not unusual for the apocalypse, and perhaps there is a certain reliance on the aural considering that our character leads are blindfolded, but the film’s opportunity and premise for intricate sound design is interesting at best, under-utilized at worst.
As much as it is tempting to simply draw parallels between the post-apocalyptic scenery in Bird Box and our now-empty streets and dilapidated buildings—or the eerily similar frenzy in which we ravage grocery stores—it’s perhaps a little more productive to talk about what we can learn about human nature’s response to life-altering catastrophe: how we adapt, but also how we view and interact with one another when the life in which we first knew each other is gone.
The film makes clear that in her previous life, Malorie, although pregnant at the time, is not predisposed to parenthood, as she paints in her literal “studio” apartment and is open about her general tendency toward social isolation. We understand who she was and therefore what she lost—her passion, her profession, her family, her quirks: her identity. But when we meet the children, we meet only Boy and Girl, a nameless pair under her vigilant though perhaps not so tender care. Of course, when the chances of death are more likely than not, this superficial form of distancing oneself from intimate relationships seems reasonable.
But, having seen little else in their lifetimes and with mysterious backgrounds, these children represent a sort of anonymity—an identity crisis—within this larger crisis, a time in which distinction of name or person seems nearly irrelevant, other than for pragmatic coordination (and the basic distinction of gender here works perfectly well enough for that). And while I don’t think we’ll cease naming our children with meaningful language anytime soon, identity crises have suddenly and absolutely befallen us. On a personal level, sure. Who are we without our work, without society’s commentary on and reflection of us, without…a need to even put pants on to go to a meeting?
But as COVID has shut down city after city, state after state, those places that relied on the non-essential to identify within a larger landscape are finding themselves a little lost and very antsy to get back to “normal” at any cost (and perhaps with good reason). Take Las Vegas. Tourism, casinos and cruder entertainment are the hallmarks of the city—not only symbolically, but also practically, as the above industries sustain the economy for more than half a million people living there. Now that the city’s shut down and mass gatherings for entertainment or otherwise are forbidden (not to mention travel is highly discouraged), what is Las Vegas?
“For the moment, Nevada has much less of a reason to exist in the lives of the rest of the world than usual,” David Colbourne writes in an opinion column for the Nevada Independent.
When every previous amenity and ornament that we relied on before to be seen and utilized and appreciated by the world becomes obsolete, who do we become? Crisis makes our well-built and long-cultivated facades irrelevant, and survival supersedes all. Boy and Girl simply are a boy and a girl, lives to be protected, but for what? Is there a better future at the end of the river?
Another clear line running through this film is (yes, you guessed it) vision, or lack thereof, during times of danger. On a normal day, our vision allows us to identify the world, its inhabitants and our own role in it. We don’t just see the earth or a human body—we see the facades we’ve built, the clothes we wear—systems and personas cultivated by humans for years. But our other senses—ones played up in Bird Box, particularly hearing and touch—are much more guttural, much more primal. Throughout the film, Malorie and the others rely on the fine-tuning of these less-appreciated senses, careful to keep blindfolds tight, ears open and hands out in almost every outdoor scene.
But, of course, there are those who brazenly throw caution to the wind, running with eyes wide open. And some commit suicide, as expected. But some are rewarded for their stupidity, spared by the creatures and converted into preachers trying to lure others into danger to “see the truth” by taking off their blindfolds.
And while the rampant and terrifying spread of COVID-19 doesn’t have us debating covers for our eyes, we sure are debating covers for our mouths and noses. And in this time of desperate measures, of fear and unknown futures—this time in which we are itching to return to our former selves, our former identity—there are those who are brazen, those who are defiant and many who are preaching the “truth” to those hiding and out-and-about alike, regardless which political or societal viewpoint you take.
Are we treading carefully, cultivating carefully the new senses we rely on in the post-COVID world? Perhaps a hyper-awareness of proximity, of space, or even of handwashing or hygiene? Are we willing to confront uncertainty with due preparation and caution? Because, frankly, the reality is that there is a huge amount of uncertainty; there is still a sense that we cannot see all that this virus is or could do, and we are relying on a sense of survival that most Americans haven’t in their lifetimes.
Yes, we are living in fear. But sometimes treading carefully toward an uncertain promise of a better world is more responsible than unabashedly confronting the enemy with overconfidence. Sometimes we find bravery confounded with stupidity, courage confused with selfishness. And in times of crisis, we need others around, others to take care of, to remind us that there is a reason to tread carefully—there is humanity to protect, even if we don’t know all of their names.