S. Yumi Yamamoto
Bird Box: a Character Piece
Updated: Jan 26, 2019
Soooo, I took a few weeks off. Christmas happened and the New Year... and I just wanted a break, frankly. It was a wild 2018 for me, and I wanted to start off 2019 as stress-free as I could... that meant I didn't work unless I wanted to. And, you guessed it, I didn't want to work on the blog. So there 😜
However, I wasn't doing nothing. In December, I started my youtube channel all over again, and started this thing called Booktube, where I talk about bookish stuff. It's fun! Check me out
I also had a chance to see this Netflix movie BIRD BOX which has everyone in a fit. I was genuinely curious going into it, and I really loved it. Of course, I couldn't watch a movie without dissecting the crap out of it, so I made a video, but not all my notes went into the video. So, in light of the fact that I edited myself for a reason, here is the unabridged version of my review.
I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this movie, and here they are. These are just my opinions and observations, and are not meant to be anything but that.
This movie is one that I highly recommend watching without any spoilers. The trailers do a pretty good job of giving you an idea of how the movie is going to feel and what it’s about without giving away the important bits. It’s not your typical horror, and it’s more in line with the kind of psychological thrillers/ monsters that I really enjoy. If you know too much about the story, the psychological elements will probably be ruined before they happen, but you can’t really talk about the film without discussing those bits. That said, I will try my damnedest to have a non-spoiler section for those of you who really want it, and a more in-depth look with spoilers.
In the non-spoiler spirit, Bird Box was a great thriller-horror movie with some fantastic actors, great pacing, an intriguing concept, and just enough tropes to make the plot feel familiar without being a complete rip off of any zombie-apocalypse story. PS. it’s not a zombie movie. It IS an end of the world movie, though, and because of that there are certain pitfalls which feel almost required. The movie does not do this cheaply, so at least there’s that.
For a synopsis: Bird Box is about a woman called Malorie (Sandra Bullock) who is trying to survive and end of the world scenario, where the people do not understand what is causing mass suicides. When it finally hits the town of our protagonist, they figure out that it has something to do with sight. If they see the monster/thing that is after them, it’s over. They die. After surviving for years in these conditions, the protagonist, with her two children, must travel down river without being able to see, so that they can find more permanent shelter. That’s a little more than what you’ll get from the trailers, but as this is pretty much established in the first line of the movie, I’m not considering this a spoiler.
That said, the opening of this film is great! As I said, the first line of the movie pretty much outlines the entire concept of what is happening currently and the basic motivation for travelling in such a dangerous manner. In the next moment, our expectations are set when Malorie gives her children a very angry and serious talk about the journey they’re about to make. The scene is tense and heightens our awareness of the exact parameters of the world: most importantly that the blindfold must stay ON no matter that else happens. Without knowing much else, we’ve already established the world, the journey, the dangers, and the main character within the first five minutes with only a handful of lines. This was EXCELLENT.
In another excellent choice, we get the full story in a series of time jumps: what life was like five years previous when the outbreak of suicides first started, and then during the present journey down river. This way, we get to understand Malorie more as a character and her personal arc, as well as skip over the hours and hours of quiet nothingness on the river. The way the movie is structured ensures that there is almost no “fat” in the film. Every scene is important and every line is carefully constructed. Because of this, I feel like I’ve missed certain aspects of the movie in the first sitting, the deeper symbolism and messages in the dialogue or the construct of the scene itself, and I’m willing to bet that I’ll find some other important things as I rewatch Bird Box.
I’m not sure if this movie is for everyone, as this isn’t your typical “horror movie”. It’s more the horror that I really enjoy, where the film doesn’t rely on gore or jump scares or a scary monster that’s going to look outdated in about five years. This is a quieter horror, where the thing to survive or overcome is the choices made and the consequences of those choices. As much as this story is an external terror, the actual story is about Malorie’s internal struggles. I think of this less as a horror movie and more like a thriller-character piece with horror elements. Lots of caveats.
If you’re looking for that gorey, jump scare, terror-inducing experience, read the novel. I’ve been told that the director of the movie deliberately changed certain aspects to tone down the gore and provide a more hopeful ending than the novel provides :)
Now to get into the spoiler bits of this review. Seriously, if you haven’t seen it yet, please don’t let me ruin it for you. Come back once you’ve watched it and enjoy my video then :)
Okay, now that it’s just us girls, let’s get started.
I want to start with the theme of the movie, which is stated in the first scene in the five-years-previous timeline. Malorie and her sister meet in Malorie’s apartment, where she’s painting and they have a talk about what’s happening in the outside world. There’s the obvious bit about Malorie being disconnected from the world, and this is shown throughout her paintings. The writers even go insofar as to make the statement, or something to the effect of, “Loneliness is just incidental. It’s really about people’s inability to connect.”
Of course, this one line sums up Malorie’s character arc. She is unable or unwilling to connect with other people. She’s estranged from her mother, the guy who was living with her got her pregnant and then ran off, and she’s not even happy about having the baby. Further on, she doesn’t really want to connect with Olympia, Tom has to win her over just to be her lover, and the kids she takes care of don’t even have real names until the end: just Boy and Girl.
The closest thing we get to any kind of connection before everything goes to shit is when Malorie and John Malkovich’s character, Douglas, have a drink of whiskey in the kitchen. Here we find out that he reminds Malorie of her father, who was an asshole, and they take turns swapping insults, almost like they’re connecting through the hostility. Malorie earns his respect, and he gets to alleviate his pain and frustration. It’s not the strongest relationship, and it doesn’t last all that long. Still, it’s notable because this is the relationship that Malorie is the most comfortable navigating.
Tom is softer, sharing smiles and light flirtation, but ultimately it is through truth that they bond. Tom asks Malorie to open up to him, and he opens up to her. They see the secrets of the world, whether that’s finding a drug addict and a cop-in-training screwing in the laundry room, or knowing how the monster works before the rest of them figure it out. Tom’s connection with Malorie is his ability to tell her the truth clearly, even if that truth clashes with her beliefs. When he tells Boy and Girl the fake story about his childhood, he says it’s to give the kids hope. In the end, that’s exactly what Malorie needs and that story saves Girl from the whispers.
Her relationship with Olympia is a strange one, but I believe it’s the beginning of Malorie’s change. Though she doesn’t actively fight Olympia when she forcibly starts to sleep next to Malorie, there is definite hesitation. Malorie is uncomfortable even with the idea of opening up about her experiences, even to someone who is going through pregnancy too. This relationship is different from the others, but not because Olympia is kinder or they’re going through the same things.
Malorie and Olympia are FOILS, meaning they are mirrored opposite in order to highlight aspects in each other. Olympia has been coddled her entire life. She’s useless, she doesn’t understand her world, she craves connection with others, and she’s lived a soft life. Malorie is assured of where she stands, she doesn’t need connection with others to survive, she makes herself useful, and, as she says, “was raised by wolves.” Olympia still takes her pre-natal pills during the apocalypse and Malorie takes a swig of whiskey. Olympia acts on her emotional states, and Malorie acts on logic. Yet, it’s clear that Malorie wishes she had bits of Olympia’s life, as Olympia wishes she had bits of Malorie’s. When Malorie gives the Hello Kitty doll to her as a gift, it’s not given out of obligation or anything malicious. It’s a genuine gift, one borne out of something softer in Malorie that we don’t really get to see with anyone else.
Last of these connections is with Girl, who is Olympia’s daughter. It’s clear that Malorie doesn’t like her. The way the camera focuses more on Girl than Boy when capturing the relationship Girl and Malorie have is enough to imply the tense relationship. I want to stress here that Malorie is not a bad person. Obviously, she’s raised Girl for the last five years and has continued to protect her. It’s never stated exactly why Malorie feels this way toward Girl, but I suspect it has three roots: Olympia’s promise, Malorie’s own experience as a child, and Girl having a mind and will of her own.
If Olympia hadn’t died, Girl wouldn’t be Malorie’s problem. Girl is a burden, another mouth to feed, another thing that Olympia never had to deal with in her life. Surely there’s a little resentment there. If not, it may have to do with how much Girl is like Olympia, and how different that is from Malorie. While Tom might fill Girl’s head with dreams of seeing the world, of something better than their lives, Malorie is the tough-love Mom: the one who places more concern about reality and safety than cultivating hope. Lastly, Girl doesn’t listen to Malorie, whether it’s at home or on the river, and Girl craves a relationship with Malorie. When Malorie stops for supplies and Girl senses something wrong, Girl goes out at tries to find Malorie while observing safety precautions. For a five year old, this is both brave and stupid, but Girl does it out of love. This is kind of a problem for Malorie, who doesn’t want anyone stepping out of line and does not want a connection with Olympia’s daughter.
Imma go off on a tangent here to talk about the importance of Malorie and Douglas’s relationship more in depth because I think it needs it. More the implications than the actual relationship...
This is the epitome of what the current “strong female character” looks like: it’s hard, rejects any sort of feminine qualities, takes the beating and gives it back. Their conversations give us a look at who Malorie really is because she is more comfortable bantering with Douglas than anyone else. While Malorie does have concern about drinking whiskey while pregnant, she does it anyway. PS. as a former bartender here… that was WAY MORE than a quarter ounce. That’s like at least three ounces, so don’t kid yourself the next time you drink. And you know what? I think Malorie knows that. There’s nothing indicating it, but the way the pour was shot, viscerally showing the difference between Douglas’s ACTUAL quarter-ounce glass and her 3-4 ounce glass… I just don’t think Malorie cares. It’s hard to pin down exactly why Malorie kept the baby when it’s very clear that she doesn’t care, but this kind of behavior is indicative of this rejection of all things female: down to bodily functions. We’ve grown very accustomed to having this kind of woman appear in all of our entertainment media, and we kind of like her.
What makes Malorie different is the end of her journey, and how she’s affected by the other women in her life. What also makes her different is that the change isn’t some role she suddenly dawned, or that she cries for the first time, or she starts being anything other than herself. There is vulnerability in a way that we did not see in other parts of the movie. In fact, despite giving birth and surviving an attack while helpless, despite the crazies, despite the river and the rapids… Malorie is most vulnerable when she bares her soul to a wide void that may or may not be listening. Once she overcomes that, she isn’t changed: she is relieved and empowered. That’s the difference, and that’s why regardless of the typical, now-tropey “strong female” type Malorie is, she ends up being different.
Okay, now that all of that is out of the way, onto the actual moment of change for Malorie. This happens in the last act, during the moment of crisis. It’s interesting to note that Bird Box choses to make Malorie’s change a kind of snap decision in an act of desperation, rather than have her gradually change throughout the film. In my opinion I think it’s excellent, as this doesn’t feel like the traditional wearing down of walls or someone deciding to change the protagonist’s mind. It is MALORIE’s choice. But, before this moment, there is a prelude to her change.
Earlier, when Malorie stops for supplies, Girl goes looking for Malorie, sensing something is wrong. While it’s clear that Girl knows what to do (putting a line around her and keeping the birds with Boy, Malorie still yells at her and drills into Girl that they should have no concern for her. If she dies, then she’s supposed to save herself. If they get separated, Girl is supposed to save herself.
Also, when they are on the boat, Malorie explains that one of the children must LOOK to tell her where to steer through the rapids. Boy immediately volunteers, and Malorie immediately tells him no. This does NOT happen when later Girl volunteers. It’s clear that Malorie is struggling to do what’s right, when she really wants to sacrifice Girl so that they survive. I think what makes Malorie stop, choosing instead to leave their rapids adventure to chance, is because Girl was willing to sacrifice herself. Malorie was looking for that, as if she wanted assurance that Girl was still worth keeping alive. It’s a strange notion, but Malorie seems to be acting out a particular role of leader, which is not that of a mother. Girl doesn’t follow direction, and she puts others in danger. Girl is the weak link.
With that logic in mind, Malorie should have run off with Boy the moment Girl went missing. If Malorie didn’t have the conflict inside her, the character-accurate drive would have been to leave Girl and keep running with Boy.
But she doesn’t, and that’s why this is such an important change. Malorie doesn’t realize what she’s protecting, WHO she is protecting, until she almost loses Girl. It’s as if she’s truly alone there, even though she knows where Boy is, because Malorie actually craves connection. She always has understood the value of connection, of the hope that Tom gives the kids, but she denies it to harden herself. In this moment, she is a mother rather than a leader. There is genuine relief when Girl finds her, and Malorie all but sacrifices herself in order to get the kids to safety.
The point from the moment of change to the end is rather quick: 5-10 minutes at most. Again, this is interesting because typically the climax of a story and the moment of crisis happens nearly at the same time. But Bird Box separates the two. The climax is the rapids: it’s the last hurdle in their journey before safety, it’s the moment of the highest stakes that is controllable by the characters, it presents the most immediate danger, and their journey has led up to this moment. It’s a textbook climax!
Yet, the moment of crisis is their separation, and it’s the final chase as they try to find shelter. Malorie’s crisis is the sudden burden of becoming a mother, or at least starting to feel and act like one. She finally gets and embraces the connection that she and her children share, and is willing to throw her life away for it. Again, this is great because Malorie doesn’t suddenly dawn the cap of Mother or Hero or anything like that. Malorie grows, yes, but it’s not drastic. If I may be a bit on the nose, Malorie’s arc is like a change in the wind: it’s still there, it’s just blowing a little differently than before. Ultimately, she is rewarded for her choices, as the film ends on a very optimistic note. In a way, they’ve entered the Bird Box: a place of enclosed safety.
Now, this movie isn’t without its flaws. There are some things I can’t overlook because they’re tropey or the logic isn’t quite there. However, these complaints are few, and the suspension of disbelief holds pretty well. It’s only after when I consider the story more closely that I find fault in some of the things. Here’s a couple of them:
The zombie-story trope of letting people in: This wasn’t too bad, but I did find issue with the trope. In ANY end of the world scenario, it’s always unwise to let people in after that initial shut. When they let Olympia in, it seemed that the trope would be subverted. She turned out to be a good person, her story was simple and sound, and she provided interesting support/foil to Malorie. However, when Olympia lets in Gary… well, that’s a different story. Until this point, the characters don’t understand that there are nut-cases who actually want to look at the creatures, and their life’s mission is to get others to look. Gary suitably passes off as normal for enough time that people let their guard down. There was no reason to believe that he was going to turn on them, as up until that point everyone who had seen the creatures killed themselves. While I understand the food run was an attempt to introduce this concept, it seemed clear that the ex-convict immediately wanted to hurt them. He asked to be let in, but as soon as the door even slightly cracked open he was violent. Gary wanted the group to hear his story, to understand what was happening, and even spent a good deal of time with them before going crazy. Again, I understand this was to introduce the look of the eyes clearly, unlike what he had seen before, but it came off as tropey to me.
Questions and Logic: As more of a nitpicky point, I wanted to know how Malorie knew they were almost upon the rapids. While I understand that water makes sound and that they’re likely more attuned to sound and movement now that their sight is pretty much gone… how did she know? How did they keep from floating ashore during the night? Would it not have been easier to get OFF the boat and travel down on FOOT to avoid the rapids? The guy on the radio said that after the rapids they were like right there… *shrug*
Malkovich Malkovich: I’m also a bit annoyed with John Malkovich’s character. He seemed like he had the potential to be a more rounded character, and instead he was pretty flat. He was like that unlikable, but also likable crochety old man type… Like I’ve seen a million times before.
Lastly, I do want to touch upon the monsters in the movie, but I feel like I don’t quite have a grasp on them yet. It’s obvious that the creatures are a demon-like entity that curates visions and voices to capture each individual, but I can’t quite tell what they represent. Perhaps it’s quite literal: facing your demons is hard, and if you do then you probably won’t like what you see. The monsters could also simply be a method to keep Malorie’s eyes shut and keep her secluded from everyone else, harkening back to the message of the story about disconnection. There’s also thoughts I have regarding the blindfold itself, causing everyone to feel trapped and isolated, kept within their own heads and unable to open up… And how at the beginning it seems like Malorie might think that she’s the one that’s causing the madness...
All this culminates to a point that’s this: it’s better that we never understand what the creatures are, and that we speculate as to their purpose and existence. The drawings that Gary produces may be accurate representations… but they also might just be how they appear to HIM or suggestions of how they MIGHT look according to all those sources on the internet. They take on the voices of other people, why not take on the form of others as well? They make the characters afraid or sad or simply want to give up on life. Those emotions are triggered differently for everyone, so a shapeshifting creature might be the thing that fits the most. I like that the characters try to figure out what it is but that it’s never truly explained. The creature in our mind is much scarier than the one we see. That’s like a basic rule of horror.
And it’s executed perfectly here: seeing just enough to understand but not enough to know.
I’ve heard some people on the internet complain that we never get to see the creature, and frankly that’s apparently how the studio saw it too. The studio WANTED a monster reveal, as if that was something that necessarily HAD to be done. Also, apparently there was a monster created specifically for Malorie, which would show up in a dream sequence; they even shot extensively. But ultimately, the creature they made looked doofy and didn’t hold up to the rest of the film. I imagine that if they had left in the monster, it would have ended up like INSIDIOUS did: scary and intriguing RIGHT up to the point that the demon was revealed. Once that thing was on screen, I was no longer interested or frightened of it. For that, I’m personally glad that the creature never showed up in BIRD BOX.
Overall, this is a great story, and I’m curious to read the novel now that I’ve seen the movie. The characters are fleshed out just enough to not be total stereotypes, and just flat enough that our focus is always, ALWAYS on Malorie. The pacing is on the slower side, but the story keeps moving enough that it holds your attention. It is gritty yet uplifting, terrifying yet fulfilling. This isn’t a film that is going to satisfy everyone, but if you take off the “horror” lens I think that this is a film for everyone.