Netflix is currently going through a phase of throwing things at a wall to see what sticks. The streaming/production company has spent around $8 billion in creating original material to date, and in the second half of 2018 is reported to have uploaded somewhere in the region of 470 Netflix Original movies and series onto its service. So for that kind of money, it’s staggering just how much not-great stuff is going out. Highlights might be movies like Annihilation (a pretty decent if slightly ponderous sci-fi movie), or perhaps The Haunting of Hill House adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel that had nothing to do with the Shirley Jackson novel, which ended up being a horror series for people who have never watched a horror series. Stranger Things was the surprise hit which arguably started all this, and still seems to owe much of its success to many of its viewers forgetting the 80s in reality was more miners strike than E.T. Nostalgia, in these difficult times, has great currency. As do synthesisers. Who would have predicted that?
Of course Netflix has had some notable hits, shows that have secured significant fanbases and devotion. Critics can sneer as much as they like, but the story goes that Netflix is investing directly into the creative pool, and allowing visionaries to flex their muscles in ways the asphyxiating confines of the independent movie business would never allow. And in this day and age it doesn’t seem to matter that the Coen Brothers can fling out such bottom drawer hogwash as The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, conning the Netflix commissioners into thinking they’re paying for Hollywood royalty, when every white male whose cinematic tastes never developed beyond their eighteenth birthdays will shout loudest and proudest across social media that Scruggs is a masterpiece, and possibly even film of the year.
What we can be sure of, is for almost every Netflix original that is not terrible, still there is a much better version of that movie that is not made with Netflix money out there somewhere. Probably on Netflix. And so we have Sandra Bullock in Bird Box, who for 124 minutes sets about reminding the audience just how good A Quiet Place is.
In A Quiet Place, Emily Blunt plays a mother in a post-apocalyptic world striving to protect her children from an invading force of blind aliens with supersensitive hearing who quickly devour anything they hear. In Bird Box, Bullock, for the most part, is doing the same against creatures who, once seen, evoke some kind of psychological reaction that inspires the seer to self-destruct. This premise, although much more belaboured than the oral one, does allow for some exciting set-pieces, particularly in the opening cataclysm that begins in a hospital corridor and spills out to the wider city that brings to mind the stunning opening of Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake.
But that scene, as good as it is, is still a genre trope, the gradual unfurling of apocalyptic catastrophe around our protagonist – we, the audience, see the danger first; we know, and soon our hero knows too. It was sent up so well in Shawn of the Dead, and not much new is done with it in Bird Box. And time and time again the clichés are trotted out only for nothing to be done with them that makes the walk really worthwhile. The great John Malkovich is given a one-dimensional character which frankly could have been wasted on any half decent actor (if you’re going to be given an actor like Malkovich then the least you can do is write him a part). Tom Hollander pops up, ready to chew the scenery in that way he does, and then limply goes away off screen. A wild and raging river is traversed, and overcome, with a bit of froth, but not much else.
Bird Box is one of those peculiar movies that begs the question why it was made in the first place? If it’s a vehicle for Bullock, it lets her down with an underdeveloped character. If it’s an homage to dystopian movies, it is made with no love for the genre. If it’s supposed to be a contender in a current trend of portentous horror movies such as It Comes at Night and A Quiet Place, then it turns up to the bout overweight and sluggish. It has some annoying pretentious pseudo-Cormac McCarthy literariness – the children are named ‘Girl’ and ‘Boy’, presumably in an attempt by Bullock’s character to maintain some kind of emotional detachment from them in these short-lived times, but she has no qualms in forming an emotional attachment with Trevant Rhodes’ love interest. But in the end it’s just annoying. Name your kids, Sandra.
Bird Box is also around 34 minutes too long – there’s just no need for an intimate dystopian horror parable to be over two hours in running length. The thrills are sugar-hits, ultimately forgettable, and the characters thin and unsympathetic. As an addition to the modern horror landscape it is at best an outpost, while movies such as the ones mentioned before, as well as ones like Hereditary, It Follows and The Babadook benefit from far more vision, much more control, and, you might presume, a much better reason for being made in the first place.