I realize I’m a few days late to Bird Box, which, on the internet might as well mean I didn’t watch it at all. But still, I was curious to actually participate in the thing, instead of just watching everybody else talk about it.
After all, Netflix Original movies are rarely this high profile. When the trailer first dropped, the reactions, ranging from “oh my god, it’s Sandy” to “didn’t we just do A Quiet Place” were plentiful. Then, the Netflix marketing machine went into overdrive, ensuring that either a blindfolded Sandra Bullock or a terrified Sarah Paulson was on pretty much every ad on the internet for the past few weeks.
And then the semi-controversial memes started. Twitter blew up with Bird Box memes and tweets. They got so popular, so quickly, that people started accusing Netflix (or a PR firm hired on their behalf) of setting up fake teen Twitter accounts in order to create the illusion of virality. (Example with mild spoiler just below)
And, it all seems to have worked. Bird Box is now the second-most popular Netflix Original movie of the year (based on the number of IMDb user rankings).
The Original movie with more attention this year (so far) was The Cloverfield Paradox, which dropped with explosively successful Super Bowl announcement trailer and surprise immediate premiere.
The notoriously data-private Netflix is already boasting that Bird Box had the biggest opening week for an Original movie in the platform’s history.
But that’s just the marketing. How is Bird Box, anyway?
I had my expectations pretty low, and ended up pleasantly surprised. Set in a mid-apocalyptic and then post-apocalyptic world, where survivors need to make sure they never set eyes on mysterious “creatures” that will drive them to suicide, Bird Box plays well with its unique-ish mythology. Because the creatures are specifically unseeable, their threat is looming and ever-present. In the early days of the creatures’ appearance, we see characters experiment with different survival tactics. Some work, and others don’t. Compared to an apocalypse scenario like The Walking Dead, for instance, which sees its hero shoot zombies in the brain the first time he encounters them, it’s compelling to see Bird Box’s characters learn the “rules,” of their particular end-of-the-world scenario.
None of the characters feel safe (aside from Sandra Bullock’s Malorie in the flashback scenes), and the horror is amplified by the fact that people are so often blindfolded. It’s scary enough to imagine falling out of a boat unexpectedly, but doing so blind seems unbearably terrifying.
It makes for a tense watch, and it’s easy to recommend Bird Box for that reason alone. It’s not two hours of constant clenching, though. There are breaks for some warm, human moments, and even occasional chuckles. Unfortunately, there are also hiccups in the thrills because of some clumsy, unbelievable exposition, as well as scenes that aim for the heart, but end up stumbling into hokey territory.
They’re hardly unforgivable sins, and, overall, Bird Box ends up being Netflix’ most intense horror outing since Hush.
The other, more insidiously troubling, thing about Bird Box is its othering treatment of people with mental health issues. In this movie, there’s a very clear distinction between “crazy” people and sane people. When one character dies early on, succumbing to the creatures’ forced suicide, another character makes it very clear how sane she was, “she does not get sad […] she’s not suicidal. She would never do that.” And sure, for the sake of the plot, it’s important to recognize that these victims are being driven to suicide, but it’s not like this is the only time Bird Box draws a line in the sand about mental illness.
Later, when a group of survivors goes into a supermarket, they come across an employee trapped in the loading dock. A co-worker, one of the survivors, recognizes his voice, and tells the group that his name is Fish Finger and that “he’s a bit crazy.” As the scene unfolds, we discover that “crazy” people have a different reaction to the creatures than everyone else. It’s a distinction that comes up a few more times, but without ever really explaining why.
In the case of the creatures, it makes sense, and makes for better horror, to never get a real explanation. When talking about mental health, however, the lack of explanation leaves you with little more than the answer that “crazy” people are fundamentally different from everybody else. In this world, it’s black or white. You’re “crazy” or you’re not.
I saw one tweet (see #2 below) that tried to argue that this is actually a positive, respectful depiction of mental health.
It might take some mental gymnastics to get there, but I can see how you could argue that people struggling with mental health issues could have built up some kind of tolerance to the kinds of depression and suicidal ideation that the creatures inflict on people. So, instead, the creatures just kind of … recruit people with mental illness, since their usual m.o. doesn’t work?
Even if we assume this reading is true, it took a bunch of scratching below the surface to get there. If the audience has to work that hard to come up with an explanation that still demands more scrutiny, it’s probably safe to say that Bird Box was careless in how it tackled (or rather didn’t tackle) the subject.