James H.F. Lloyd looks at the symbolism in the Netflix hit show, Bird Box, and what it tells us about the time we live in.
Netflix’s Bird Box (2018) projects a sinister moral which is overlooked by the popularity it gained through its ridiculousness and the Bird Box Challenge it indirectly spawned. Released at the end of a catastrophic year for the environment and politics, the film suggests it’s better to be blind to danger than to face it with your eyes open. It suggests we should also teach children too.
In Bird Box, pregnant Malorie (Sandra Bullock) faces invisible monsters that have swept across the world. The monsters manifest as the onlooker’s greatest fears, forcing them to kill themselves. Even seen through the CCTV monitor, as Greg (BD Wong) does, they drive you to suicide. Only the psychotic can harmlessly view them, thinking them beautiful and forcing the sane to look. After hiding from the monsters for five years, Malorie leads her children Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair) to the safety of a School for the Blind deep in the woods.
Blindness enabling them to survive is meant to be a great revelation in the film, a way that humanity can defy the suicide-inducing monsters. Yet this utopian community is more dystopic in reality, its seclusion in the forest isolationist in nature. The symbolic ignorance being blind entails cannot be ignored. The idea that being blind is safer against a context of social and ecological upheaval is remarkable. It makes the ending tragic and pessimistic.
At the Blind College, the monsters are still outside with their thralls. Malorie and her children are merely hiding away as they were before. The monsters are never defeated, just avoided. She tries to shield her children from the world outside, but that isn’t going to save them. Destroying the monsters might.
It’s a key difference that separates this tragedy from its cinematic counterpart, A Quiet Place (2018). In that film, monsters hunt through sound, forcing the characters to live in silence. They live in fear of disturbing the peace, signalling fears for free speech and debate, something thinkers like Stephen Fry fear are being eroded. When Emily Blunt’s Evelyn amplifies the radio feedback at the film’s end, the high pitches make the monster vulnerable: Only by facing their fears and being loud do they finally discover a way to end their tyranny. No such revelation is found in Bird Box, where facing your fears leads to annihilation. Their sanctity in the School for the Blind marks their acceptance of forced blindness, adding the film to a depressing trend in which the characters are powerless to avert global catastrophe. Think Interstellar (2014), The Titan (2018) and Nightflyers (2018) to name a few.
Bird Box also draws parallels with Cargo (2017), where zombifying Andy (Martin Freeman) strives to find a safe place to leave his baby before he dies. He must choose between a corrupt oil baron and the aborigines fighting to reclaim their land from the dead. The zombies bury their heads in the sand, a gesture with remarkably similar connotations to those that Bird Box’s blindfolds carry; the ignorance of consumer culture to its damaging consequences. Andy decides his baby’s future is safer with the aborigines who look after the land rather than exploit it. It conveys a strong message and the means to a brighter future.
Both Cargo and Bird Box follow a parent struggling to seek a brighter future for their children. It takes Malorie time to warm to this new role. She has commitment issues, refusing to name the children to avoid becoming attached. After five years living blind, she can’t imagine a world beyond their bleak situation. She doesn’t tell them hopeful stories as Tom (Trevante Rhodes) does, telling him “they’re gunna die if they listen to you!” She insists everything she does is for her children, but there is no defining moment where she solely accepts the mantle of responsibility. It’s only after Tom’s sacrifice that she decides to go to the Blind College, a decision that recalls Ray (Tom Cruise) selfishly trying to palm the kids onto their mother in War of the Worlds (2005). Unlike in Cargo, Malorie’s journey feels more like a rejection of her parenting role than a commitment to it. When they reach the rapids, one of them must remove their blindfold to see the danger. It was a moment Malorie could have committed to her role as parent and looked herself; a symbolic removing of her ignorance to save her children’s future. That gesture would have had poignance after 15-year old Greta Thunberg pleaded world leaders to avert climate catastrophe at the COP24, the younger generation begging the older to act. This defining moment never happens. They traverse the rapids through literal blind luck, a scene that emphasises the message that being ignorant is okay. Malorie represents an older generation unwilling to make meaningful sacrifices to save a younger one, a consequence the ending confirms.
The film contains other themes too. Increasing rates of suicide are clearly referred to. Many of the monster drawings Gary (Tom Hollander) displays are similar to artist Shawn Cross’s illustrations of mental illness. Suing Bankruptcy specialist Douglas (John Malkovich) alludes to Donald Trump, refusing to allow people sanctuary and claiming to make “the end of the world great again.” Without actually seeing the world-threatening monsters, it connotes the invisible and ever-present threat of climate change. Canaries are used to detect the monsters, just as they were used to detect deadly gases in the mining industry. “The canary in the coal mine” is a phrase that has been used to denote warning signals for social, economic and environmental disasters. Having the film knowingly allude to all these themes, it’s extraordinary for it to then suggest that covering your eyes is the answer.
In Gary Raymond’s review, he begs the question why Bird Box was made in the first place. It’s a film about raising children in a world of crises, providing despairing answers. Near the beginning of the film, Jessica (Sarah Paulson) says to Malorie “You can’t ignore it and just hope it goes away.” This is exactly what Malorie does, saving her children by being blind to the fatal problems of the world. The film is a frustrating missed opportunity. The ending can’t help feeling like a midpoint to a much better film where Malorie comes to embrace her neglected responsibilities and find a solution to the crisis. It presents a reflection of our own reality in which our society turns a blind eye to the crises that threaten us. Despite the film’s underwhelming critical response, the cultural hype and the thematic richness of Bird Box will elevate it as a document of our times.
James H.F. Lloyd is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.