Bird Box: a victim of its own platform?

Emilie Rapport Munro asks whether Netflix overdid its smash-hit thriller.

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Candid photograph of Sandra Bullock wearing a red dress at Comic Con with a microphone in front of her.

Bird Box is an exciting watch. In an apocalyptic world where an invisible force causes people to commit suicide by bombarding them with visions of the most dismal things they can imagine, preying upon their saddest memories, the only way to survive is to remain blindfolded.

We see Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and how she survives in the first few months after the epidemic of mass suicides—as well as five years down the line, where she must embark on a perilous journey down a river with two young children, whom she calls merely “Girl” and “Boy”. The viewing is filled with tension, jump-scares and moments of shock-horror.

We are motivated to keep watching by the questions set up by the plot: What has happened in the intervening five years? Why is it that people who are already mentally ill are affected differently? What is the significance of the birds Malorie carries with her in a box?

Questions also arise about what sort of message the film is trying to convey. Some scenes hint at a commentary on the state of our civilisation: one character says the suicides are caused by demons who have come to eradicate the species, claiming that “humans have been judged and been found wanting”. Some reviewers have suggested that the film is asking questions about the meaning of living: is it worth being alive if you’re only surviving? This may be the reason for Malorie not giving the children names: it could make them too emotionally attached to each other, lulling them into a false sense of domestic safety. However, these points of introspection are too lightly touched upon to make any meaningful impact on the viewer.

The film feels somehow unfinished. The interesting concept is not explored to its full potential; it feels more like an extended episode of a TV show rather than a movie. I wonder whether this is the fate of Netflix films: made for streaming, they are not held to the same standards as films released in cinemas.

Watching something on Netflix, we keep one eye on the screen and one eye on our phones; we talk over it to our friends; we pause it to get a drink, or to go to sleep. Watching a film on a computer screen rather than in a cinema immediately robs it of a certain atmospheric quality.

Nevertheless, the fact that Bird Box was made for Netflix has allowed it to reach a very wide audience in a short time. The immediacy of Netflix, the fact that millions of people around the world can stream at the same time, means that Netflix originals can very rapidly make an impact on popular culture. It helps that Bird Box has scenes that are extremely exploitable as memes or reaction images (many memes appeared on Twitter within the first few days of its release that there was speculation that Netflix was making the memes themselves and spreading them via fake accounts).

Whether it’s worthy of the attention or not, once a Netflix original has made this impression on popular culture, more and more people will be motivated to watch it, and so its popularity grows.

Overall, Bird Box is a gripping film with a thought-provoking premise, featuring a convincing performance from Sandra Bullock. However, I was left feeling slightly unsatisfied. It is ironic that Netflix, the reason for the film’s rapid popularity, might also be the reason why it’s not as memorable a film as it could have been.

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