I always felt that The Happening should have been remade. The premise of some apocalyptic event, spurned on by a malevolent chemical that makes people commit suicide, seemed intriguing. In the hands of a competent director — which M. Night Shyamalan has been in certain cases admittedly — you could have yourself a promising and scary apocalyptic thriller — and not a hilarious unintentional comedy which The Happening is.
Unfortunately it’s unlikely that this will ever happen. Hollywood rarely remakes bad movies. They usually remake great movies that don’t need to be remade. When I heard about the premise of Bird Box, which also involves some darkly forces pushing people to commit suicide, I knew this was probably the closest thing I’ll ever come to seeing a remake of The Happening.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Susanne Bier
Written By: Eric Heisserer and Josh Malerman (based on his novel)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Danielle Macdonald, Jacki Weaver, Julian Edwards, Vivien Lyra Blair, Lil Rel Howery, B.D. Wong, Tom Hollander, Rosa Salazar, Colson Baker, Pruitt Taylor Vince with Sarah Paulson and Happy Anderson as The River Man
An apocalyptic incident — referred to as “the problem” occurs and leaves behind a deadly force of nature. Nobody knows where these murderous forces came from, but if you witness these creatures, you will either turn murderous or suicidal.
The film has two different time periods. In the present, Malorie Hayes (Sandra Bullock) travels a river with her two nameless kids, who are referred to as Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyre Blair). All three have blindfolded themselves to protect them from these invisible demons. On their way, they come across numerous dangers, from natural to humans inflicted by “the problem.”
The other time period takes place five years before the present. After a one-night stand, Malorie, who makes her living through painting, has become become pregnant. Malorie is shown to be a little anti-social, spending most of her time with her moralistic sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson). On the news they refer to a creeping incident happening in Russia where people go crazy and commit suicide. Soon enough, this horrific incident happens in America too and Malorie is forced to hide out in a house full of survivors, which includes nurturing Tom (Trevante Rhodes), morosely cynical Douglas (John Malkovich), paranoiac wannabe author Charlie (Lil Rel Howery), and soft-spoken Cheryl (Jacki Weaver), among others.
As you can expect in a world where comforts are continually decreasing, the human animal begins to show its true nature. Especially when the supplies start to run out…
Let’s Talk About the Cast
If you skimmed through the cast, you will probably notice an accumulation of extraordinary acting talents. The cast is the film’s best asset, despite the limited screen presence of many of these performers. The cast is led by Sandra Bullock, who gives one of the finest dramatic performances of her career as Malorie, a woman forced into becoming a parent in a world torn apart by some biochemical or perhaps supernatural force. Having made her name mostly through a slew of derivative romantic comedies, it’s nice seeing her expand her talents once again. The film would never have worked so well without her.
It’s hard not to be swayed by Trevante Rhodes charm. Ever since his intimate performance in Moonlight, he’s become a person of interest in Hollywood. He probably gave the finest performance in the critically derided The Predator (which I admittedly liked) and he’s extremely likable in Bird Box too as the nurturing Tom, who becomes Malorie’s love interest.
I don’t think John Malkovich needs an introduction. As Douglas, the mourning and bitter survivor of the group, he gives another solid performance. He often brings some dark humor in the proceedings. At first his character seems destined to become a typical bad guy as we’ve seen countless times in apocalyptic films. Luckily his character does become more three-dimensional, especially in his final scenes.
Julian Edwards and Vivien Lyra Blair have some of the cutest kid faces you will see. Both of these kids give believable performances as children trying to comprehend the incomprehensible violence and dangers that lurk outside their world. They don’t become the typical kids you see in a Hollywood picture. They actually feel like children. I was genuinely nervous for their survival during the climax of the film.
Danielle Macdonald already impressed viewers in a previous Netflix production, Dumplin’. In Bird Box she plays the kind-hearted but also naïve Olympia. Though she’s one of the characters that eventually gets sidelined by the massive cast, she still possesses that similar charm that made her such a joy to watch in Dumplin’.
The same goes for Lil Rel Howery, who most cinemagoers will remember as the hilarious comic relief in Get Out. In Bird Box he plays the conspiracy theory-spouting grocery clerk Charlie, who’s consequently working some sort of novel about the end of the world. Like most of the cast, he doesn’t get as much attention as he deserves. Though he does bring some humor to a mostly bleak film, it’s not a recycled performance from Get Out. His character does have a minor but poignant arc in the film.
Oscar-winner Jacki Weaver is sadly a little wasted as Cheryl, the kind elderly figure amid their group. She does get a few interesting moments to shine but you wish that she had more to do. And the same goes for the rest of the cast, such as B.D Wong, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Rose Salazar and Sarah Paulson. Out of all the minor characters, only Tom Hollander as surprise guest Gary manages to be memorable in his brief screen appearance.
The impressive cast is both the film’s biggest asset and downfall. Their characters deserve more exploration, their talents deserve more exposure but their limited screen time won’t let them.
The most effective sequence in the film is probably our grueling introduction to “the problem”. First we see a woman trying to bash her face against the glass, and then we see people running away from these phantom creatures. Whenever someone sees them, their eyes become misty and they immediately become slaves to their suicidal order. These creatures seem to invade the minds of their hosts, pushing them to commit suicide in the quickest manner available. Cars bash against another cars while other cars explode. A person lets herself get run over and turn into a bloody pulp. Another character babbles about her departed family before burning herself alive.
It’s tense stuff and nothing seems to be held back. The music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is very notable here, as they have become one of the more reliable musician duos when it comes to scores, having elevated films with their minimalistic, experimental and eerie music. Case in point David Fincher’s The Social Network and Gone Girl.
Unfortunately the film never comes close to recreating the tension of this outbreak. The scale of the terror is diminished as we focus mostly on Malorie and her kids trip through the river or when she lived among the survivors. When violence does make its inevitable appearance there, it’s still hard-hitting but lacks the impact of our initial introduction to “the problem.”
The Expository Dialogue
A lack of gruesome sequences or suspense isn’t such a problem if the characters are engaging. With Bird Box, it’s not that the characters are bad, it’s that they don’t receive enough development. This is often the problem with novel-to-film adaptations. Characters motivations are simplified, storylines are dropped, and nuances are lost because a film usually isn’t allowed to be longer than two hours.
If you’ve read the novel by Josh Malerman, you’ll begin to notice many differences. These differences aren’t necessarily bad, most of the changes made by screenwriter Eric Heisserer were done to streamline the story. One particular revelation about a character is so much more effective in the novel. You begin to wish the film was much longer to allow for better development.
And this is why the film would have probably fit better in a mini-series. Characters could have been further developed, making their arcs more satisfying. To Heisserer’s credit, the movie is decently faithful to the novel but, in order to elaborate on the quirks or motivations of characters, we are treated to some painful expository dialogue. The worst of this comes when we are introduced to Malorie, whose conversation with her sister will give aspiring screenwriters a headache. To put it mildly, it’s extremely on the nose and basically entails her entire arc to the viewer.
What saves it are the performances. If the actors weren’t so great, this film would have been a painful watch, but each of them do such a solid job that most of it becomes bearable. Even so, it would have been better to delete some characters, giving more room for other characters to shine.
In Comparison to The Happening
If you haven’t seen M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Happening, you should. It’s the funniest film you will ever see about mass suicide. If you have seen it and read the premise about Bird Box, you probably were reminded somewhat of the same plot. Just like in The Happening, we have some sort of apocalyptic force that makes humans commit suicide. In The Happening it was due to some suicidal chemical administered by plants; while in Bird Box, it might be some sort of demonic or alien menace.
The rough draft of the novel was written before The Happening came out, so it’s certainly not a knock-off. The idea of some dark force turning people insane, suicidal and murderous is scary, so I’m happy that we have a better film exploring this idea. In The Happening we had a lot of unintentionally funny scenes of people committing suicide while the suicides in Bird Box are, at times anyway, genuinely unnerving.
Bird Box is the better film. Though it never reaches the entertaining heights as that one scene in The Happening that had Mark Wahlberg talking to a plant…
In Comparison to A Quiet Place
Another inevitable comparison, especially since this film came out earlier this year, is A Quiet Place. Like Bird Box, A Quiet Place is an apocalyptic horror film where characters have to sacrifice one of their senses in order to survive. In Bird Box, characters need to blindfold themselves in order to not come under the possession of these dark forces; while in A Quiet Place, these creatures are attracted to sound and the survivors are forced to be as quiet as possible in order to survive.
Like A Quiet Place, the viewer must suspend his or her disbelief in a lot of scenes in Bird Box. Seeing how quickly and astutely people adapt to being blind in strange places seems a little unbelievable. The rules of the menace itself probably conflicts with itself in a lot of scenes, as with A Quiet Place. The viewer will either not even think about this or will be severely annoyed by its lack of logic. This will all depend on how skeptical the viewer tends to be.
In Bird Box we switch sometimes to the blindfolded POV of a protagonist which isn’t exactly compelling viewing. We also know the danger is looming through the rustling wind or when the birds begin to get excited. Overall, despite the obvious limitations, Bird Box still manages to do a good job in portraying this invisible terror. Some of those who become afflicted by “the problem” become slaves to it and seem to roam the world trying to convince the people to “open their eyes”. Often times there’s nothing scarier than crazy people!
But this similarity is ultimately superficial. Both films are different enough to be judged on their own merit. Personally, I find the terror in Bird Box scarier since it’s more of a psychological terror while, in A Quiet Place, the terror is solely based on a unique gimmick.
In Comparison to Blindness
Okay I know these comparisons are getting tiresome and I understand that these films should be judged individually on their own merits, but bear with me. Blindness, unlike the two former examples, is not really an apocalyptic horror film. But just like Bird Box, an unknown apocalyptic event leads to chaos and untold carnage. In Bird Box, humans must become blind to survive while in Blindness, a sudden event causes people to turn blind. Bird Box is more about suspense while Blindness is more a study on the human condition, especially in desperate times. We see how quickly people turn against each other when their privileges and comforts are taken away. People split into groups. People begin to starve. The stronger group begins take control, demanding sexual favors in return for food and water.
We see a little bit of the darkness of the human condition in Bird Box. We see how Malorie must struggle among less moralistic individuals such as Douglas, who immediately takes a “dog-eat-dog” approach to the situation. We also see a few characters suddenly turning selfish when they begin to realize they can take advantage of a situation — a character turn which admittedly comes sudden and isn’t really built up.
But eventually, something needs to happen in Bird Box that will accumulate in a higher body count. It’s about who survives in the end, not about the choices humans must make in situations.
Bird Box does become an entertaining viewing as Blindness is often extremely uncomfortable to watch. But unfortunately, the point of Bird Box seems to be Malorie’s acceptance of motherhood, with an apocalyptic event in the background. There’s more going on in Blindness, more food for thought. While it might not be fair to compare both of them, I would have liked it more if it delved more into the tough moral decisions the humans must make in such perilous situations. I wish it had offered us something new in that regard.
With these comparisons, I just want to make the point is that despite the intriguing premise, Bird Box doesn’t offer much of anything new. It’s just a good apocalyptic thriller with a great cast that should have been great but ultimately isn’t very memorable.
A Lack of Grit
One other problem I have with this film and many in the apocalyptic genre is the lack of gritty details. Even though the survivors are stuck in a house together with a bunch of strangers, where food and water are sparse, most of the characters don’t seem to be physically affected by this. Hair is still washed and styled, the men don’t grow any big beards, their clothes are neatly ironed and none of the characters seem to lose any weight.
In the case of Trevante Rhodes’ character, the apocalyptic event doesn’t seem to have much effect on his muscled figure, no matter how long he is forced to neglect his weekly workout session. Where does he get all that protein from? Naturally I wouldn’t want to take away the pleasure of seeing a shirtless Trevante Rhodes but it does make the story feel less believable.
Naturally for many people this won’t matter. But for the highly skeptical viewer, their engagement with the story will suffer. I understand that changing physical appearances — especially having the actors lose weight — will cause the shooting schedule to stretch to unacceptable lengths, but it would have added grit to a story that needs to be gritty and hard-hitting. It’s not enough to have graphic violence, the smaller details matters just as much. It could have been as simple as making the characters look dirtier and more disheveled.
In the subgenre of apocalyptic horror/thrillers, Bird Box satisfies but doesn’t offer anything new. The outbreak of the chaos is exceptional viewing but everything that comes after that is familiar viewing.
It’s the cast — especially the central performance by Sandra Bullock — that saves this film. Every cast member gives a solid performance even if the screenplay struggles to give them room.
Bird Box manages to be a good film that — considering the material and talent involved — should have been something special. But in the genre of apocalyptic thrillers, it seems unlikely that this will stand out.
Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on Bird Box? Comment down below!
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