As a film critic, I feel compelled to write about Bird Box because, apparently, one third of the entire Internet is currently talking about this Netflix sci-fi horror movie. It’s about killer monsters that cause people to violently kill themselves upon sight. Netflix has reported that over 40 million customers have watched Bird Box in its first week of its streaming release, which basically means 35 million people likely fell asleep to Netflix and it started playing the new high-profile movie on auto play. I know people that love this movie. I know people that hate this movie. I know people who hate this movie with a passion and go into apoplexy trying to describe their disgust. Bird Box isn’t a movie worth strong feelings, both good and bad. It’s a fittingly entertaining movie with too many structural flaws, underdeveloped ideas, and diminished tension and stakes.
Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is trying to navigate the post-apocalyptic world of monsters. She’s traveling down river with her two children, all blindfolded. Meanwhile, she flashes back to the first few days of the monster outbreak when she found security in a stranger’s home until things went from bad to worse to murderous.
Part of the problem with Bird Box is that the monsters never feel that threatening because the hazy rules manage to defang them. Given the unknowable nature of monsters, I’m not expecting a textbook but some level of consistency that won’t rip me out of the film. The monsters are only a threat when you look at them, which is fine, except they cannot or choose to refrain from physically interacting with their human targets. I don’t know if this is a natural limitation, a choice, or simply anecdotal evidence that will be disproved. Just because the monsters haven’t done something yet doesn’t mean they might not be able to. Just because the monsters don’t attack anyone wearing a blue sweatshirt with a googly-eyed reindeer doesn’t mean this is standard. We see at one point the collateral movement of a monster chasing after Sandy and the kids, shoving trees and other forest vegetation aside. They do physically interact with the world; they just do not interact with our characters. This takes away much of the danger of these creatures. There’s one scene where a character is struggling to get indoors and, oh no, the garage door is opening. Look out; all he has to do is… continue not looking at the monsters as he was doing without effort. It makes me think of The Simpsons Halloween episode where the key to defeating killer mutant advertisements was not to look (it had Paul Anka’s guarantee).
The monsters also adopt the voices of loved ones, so survivors would start to learn from these experiences and begin to carry a deep skepticism about suddenly prevalent loved ones begging for blindfolds to be removed. Does this mean the monsters can psychically read the thoughts of human beings to know what voices to tap into? It made me think of The Bye Bye Man and its Bye Bye Man-induced hallucinations (“Is this cop’s face really oozing black blood through empty eye sockets, or is that you Bye Bye Man, you scamp?”). This is an interesting aspect that never feels fully developed, the mistrusting nature of the calls for help. Instead of adopting the voice of dead loved ones, I wish the monsters had chosen more judiciously. You could feature a sequence with someone genuinely calling for help and being left behind by Sandy because, in their blindfolded state, they cannot tell the difference in the authenticity of the speaker’s claims.
But what I kept coming back to is why can’t the monsters go indoors? This was a hurdle I could never fully get over because it cheapened the threat for me. As with any apocalyptic or viral outbreak, there is danger in having to leave the sanctuary, and there will be a need to gather supplies, but once you have a home base the monsters can’t enter, it loses a level of stakes. It makes me think of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs where space aliens can travel the stars but cannot open a pantry door. Having limitations on your monsters is essential or else the threat will feel too overwhelming, but these limitations need to make consistent sense. The monsters in A Quiet Place had superior hearing but were essentially blind. The monsters in Bird Box are deadly to look at, will tempt you with auditory siren songs, but as long as one remains indoors and stays away from windows, you can live a happy and healthy albeit sheltered life of repose.
This is one reason why the story has to find a new threat that is allowed to venture into the safe spaces. There are certain people who seem immune to the suicidal impulses of the monsters. The screenplay by Eric Heisserer (Arrival) implies people who were crazy beforehand are unaffected, though what degree of crazy or mental instability is up to interpretation. These people worship the monsters and actively try to force others to look at them, to also be enlightened. This could have been an interesting addition to the world of Bird Box but it plays it too straight. These cultist people are just another obstacle, a group of standard movie crazy killers. I was hoping that the screenplay was playing coy with this subject and biding its time only to introduce this group in a more meaningful and manipulative fashion later. It never happens. They’re just crazy killers meant to enter buildings and pose a new indoors threat. Now you can’t trust anyone!
The structure of Bird Box constrains the overall impact of its story. The movie is divided almost equally between two different timelines, one shortly after the start of the monster attacks and one five years later. I was waiting for these two different storylines to inform one another, and they do in essentially superficial ways. We know in the future story that it’s only Sandy and the kids, so it’s only a matter of time before everyone in this house will end up dead. It also hurts that this segment is best described as “dime store Stephen King.” We’re stuck with a group of strangers who have all been given one note to play, therefore the extra time feels tedious because we don’t care about them or what happens to them next (sorry John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, BD Wong, and others). Winnowing these extended flashbacks and sticking with the current day storyline would have improved the movie. There’s a more immediate threat and it presents a more intriguing scenario of being on the run and learning as we go about the monsters and the accrued survival tactics. I think learning on the run would be more exciting rather than conveniently finding refuge with a guy who explains everything because he was doing a book report on the supernatural and somehow knows the rules. This would also better hone the theme because the “before” of our before-and-after dynamic doesn’t establish Sandy enough as a disinterested mother.
Much of this could be forgiven or mitigated if the suspense sequences were engaging and smartly developed. I can forgive any nagging plot quibble with A Quiet Place (Why don’t they live closer to the waterfall? Why don’t they have a sound system to draw away monsters?) because the suspense sequences were brilliantly executed and highly unnerving. This just isn’t the case with Bird Box. There is one clever sequence that seems to capitalize on the possibilities of its sight-challenged premise. During the house half, the gang climbs into a car and uses its motion sensors and GPS to navigate a trip to the local grocery store for a supply run. It’s fun and decently staged. The inclusion of caged birds being a monster alarm is interesting until it starts to become more ridiculous. People never seem to listen to these birds and pay the price. The initial outbreak in the opening, with cars flipping and people flipping out, has a nice escalation into madness and chaos. The movie never quite recovers that same tense feeling. Watching people wander with blindfolds doesn’t make for great visual tension unless we see what they do not and dread what’s to come. Bird Box settles into a generic paranoia thriller about who can be trusted, and that’s even before the crazy cultists come knocking. Outside in the woods, the final act involves running to sanctuary, but without the killer cultists, it’s only running away from a thing that can’t touch them. It makes for a curiously inept climax and a sentimental resolution that feels unearned.
The arc of the movie is about Sandra Bullock’s character accepting motherhood and attachment to others but this theme is murky. She named her children “Girl” and “Boy” because she didn’t want to think of them as her own. This is the kind of thing that seems more symbolic and meaningful in theory than practice. She tells the children that in order to survive in this brave new world that they must be ready to cut another person loose at any moment. Attachments to others will get you killed, or so Sandy argues but not in deed. Because this storyline covers half of the film, the relationship she has with the kids feels underdeveloped but not by Sandy’s choice, by the filmmakers. If Sandy’s character arc was going to end at the destination of her realizing love is not a detriment even in a horrible, terrifying world, then we needed more time spent on this emotional journey, which is another reason why we could have used more time in the present-day storyline. A degree of self-sacrifice feels missing to better signify the theme of attachment and the emotional stakes.
I reiterate that Bird Box is not worth the strong feelings of love or hate. It’s got a wobbly structure where either half fails to better inform the other, the limitations of the monsters guts too much of the tension and stakes, and the actors deserve better. Bullock delivers a strong central performance and serves as our entertainment anchor. She makes the movie more watchable and does her best with some less-than-stellar expository dialogue. It’s enough to make you wish this movie was better and better realized with its spooky premise.
Nate’s Grade: C
Biopics are trickier than they appear because how best can you distill the essence, and significance, of a person into two hours? We’ve edged away from the standard cradle-to-grave biopics more in favor of stories that hinge on monumental moments in a person’s life, meant to encapsulate their life both in micro and macro. Bohemian Rhapsody favors the former approach, which causes the movie to feel like it’s rushing through the cornerstones of Queen singer Freddie Mercury’s life. Even at over two hours, the movie feels like it has little time for things, often jumping into polished, well-edited montages of time progression. The creative birth of many of the band’s hits are treated as absurdly easy formations, going from a clap of hands and stomp of feet to “We Will Rock you,” or a bass line to “Another One Bites the Dust.” It’s like the movie is checking boxes for a biopic with an anxious eye toward the clock. Mercury’s homosexuality (he comes out as bisexual to his long-time girlfriend who corrects him and calls him gay) is given its due, not having been underplayed in an effort to court a more mainstream audience. Mercury’s sense of sexuality, and the struggle of his own acceptance, is essential to getting to know this flamboyant front man. Except several of these scenes feel mishandled, which is odd considering director Bryan Singer (X-Men) has often found parallels in big studio films for the gay experience. The movie seems to say if his band mates had only accepted him more then maybe he wouldn’t have fallen into promiscuity by a bad influence and thus contracted HIV. There are also some pat answers as well like a disapproving father. However, the faults of Bohemian Rhapsody are compensated by its virtues, none more so than the electric performance by Rami Malek (TV’s Mr. Robot) as Mercury. The actor struts and preens with infectious charisma, and a mouth full of Mercury’s oversized choppers, and he miraculously captures the powerful stage magic of his character. The concluding 1985 Live Aid performance is astounding to witness and a reflection of just how essential and virtuosic Mercury and company were as live performers. It’s a sustained set of several hits and the movie just sings to a close on the highest of high notes. Bohemian Rhapsody is carried by the music and performance of Mercury the character and Malek the actor. It will make you want to rock out to Queen on the car ride home.
Nate’s Grade: B-
We all seem to love child prodigies. The concept of someone so small doing something well ahead of their years seems to fascinate our minds. I suppose the same holds true for professional killers. We all seem smitten with teenage depiction of super-powered killing machines. Last year presented Kick-Ass whose real star was the adolescent Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz-Grace), pint-sized reaper of carnage. Then there’s River from Serenity, Gogo from Kill Bill: Volume One, the ladies of Sucker Punch, the Heavenly Creatures girls (at least this one is based on a true story), and pretty much half the cast of Battle Royale. Just wait until The Hunger Games comes to screens in 2012, built upon the premise of 12-18-year-olds fighting to the death on national television (so the premise is almost exactly Battle Royale). We love our innocence mixed with ironic cynicism. Along comes Hanna, the tale of another teenage girl leaving a trail of bodies in her wake.
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a sixteen-year-old girl living above the Arctic Circle with her father, Erik (Eric Bana). She’s been in survival mode all of her life, preparing for a day when she would finally break free and seek vengeance. CIA Agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) killed Hanna’s mother and has been lying in wait to finish the job, eliminating the rest of the family. Erik has taught his daughter well to think on her feet, master several languages, and become an excellent marksman/fighter. Hanna makes the choice to set their plan into motion. She triggers a device that signals to the CIA where they are. Marissa sends a crew to pick up Hanna and Erik, but only finding the girl. Once in an underground CIA compound, Hanna turns her focus on Marissa, killing her double (good call, lady), and breaking out of the compound. She finds that she’s been taken to Morocco. Fortunately, a family is traveling through the land and Hanna can catch a ride before she meets up with dear old dad in Berlin. Marissa sets out on a manhunt to find Erik. She hires a group of German criminals (led by Tom Hollander) to retrieve Hanna (“I need you to do things my agency will not let me do,” she reasons). Everyone is on a crash course to Berlin, where Hanna’s mysterious origin will be finally revealed.
Director Joe Wright blew away all my expectations for him. The British director was mostly known for visually lavish period pieces like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. This is a drastic change of pace and proof that the occasional art director can produce a great-looking, meditative action thriller that still delivers the goods. Wright’s camerawork is beautiful, making artful use of composition, lighting, and editing to deliberate purpose. There were several moments that I just got caught up in the look of the film, aided by the energetic if sadly too-often absent score by The Chemical Brothers (I love the chunky bass groove on “Container Park”). I was just impressed what could be produced under the guise of action cinema. This is an elevation of the genre. Wright’s color palette is awash in ominous reds, soft blues, and delicate yellows, which helps give the film this painterly approach to photography. Pay attention to the dream-like visual metaphors connected to fairy tales (Marissa seems to have a tooth cleaning fetish –“What big teeth you have…”). At the same time, Wright knows how to stage a terrific action sequence. His signature tracking shots allow the audience to become enveloped in the action, taking in the punches and kicks without the disorientation of the popular erratic editing style of modern action cinema. Bana taking down a bunch of goons in a subway level is made more thrilling because we see every second of activity, allowing the moment to build in tension as he is followed, then cornered, then strikes out.
17-year-old Ronan has left the awkward pubescence of The Lovely Bones far behind her. Like her Atonement director, she too steps far beyond our concept of what she is able to perform. Ronan is a five-foot-tall wrecking crew. She keeps her eyes intensely focused, tense blue orbs. At the same time that she convincingly kicks butt up and down the screen, Ronan successfully communicates the internal drama of her character. Hanna is an outsider trained her whole life for a single purpose. When she’s left in a Moroccan back room, Hanna is overwhelmed by the cacophony of noises by electronic appliances, at a loss to make the melange of sound cease. She’s a victim of her own upbringing and her father’s quest for vengeance. Ronan keeps her icy cool demeanor when she means business, but the Irish lass and her straw-blonde hair manage to find the girl inside the super girl. Bana (Star Trek) is suitably stoic and conflicted as the father, and all hail Blanchett (Robin Hood) as a good villain for once. With her Southern drawl, she presents an alluring sense of menace throughout without breaking down into over-the-top histrionics. Blanchett is so good as a slippery CIA agent that you wish she didn’t farm out her villainy to a group of German goons.
What holds Hanna back from greatness is it uneven natures of its plot and the lack of sustainable action. The movie is just as much a strange coming-of-age saga for a girl who was raised in the woods. The lengthy travelogue with the British family from North Africa through Spain kills the film’s momentum routinely. Things will start picking up, the excitement builds, and then we cut back to the goofy caricature of a flighty liberal family (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemying as the parents). Despite the painful “do what you feel?” parenting cues, the family unit seems to have some level of functionality. These scenes are meant to contrast with Hanna’s own upbringing. It’s meant to show the life that Hanna has never been allowed to choose. But I got that rather quickly. Also, if you want to sell the “alternative path” contrast it would have more impact if this foil family were more appealing and less annoying. Even moment Hanna tags along as a stowaway with this family it disrupts the momentum. I understand that Hanna needed some narrative excuse to get from the rocky deserts of Northern Africa into central Europe, but when you’re dealing with a super kid, why rely on her just hitching a ride with a van full of hippies?
What really let me down was the lack of sustainable action that developed. While I’ve already credited Wright’s handling of the onscreen fisticuffs, I just wish there was more of it. The action occurs in spurts that fail to keep up. That tracking shot fight sequence is wonderful, but it’s too short. Hanna taking out men twice her size is undeniably enjoyable, but short of an excellent sequence of hide-and-pummel through a cargo ship yard, Hanna is never put in a position of risk. Sure she’s in danger but she’s never overmatched, which is part of the reason why the action sequences only happen in bursts. Her competition never seems to be truly threatening. Hollander (looking eerily, eerily like celebrity blogger Perez Hilton) in white bike shorts is not that intimidating. He’ll stand out, which might not be what a CIA agent wants when she hires goons to track and kill a super kid, but he’s never more threatening than Henchman #2 status, though he’s been irresponsibly promoted for the purposes of this movie. I realize that Wright and his screenwriters, Seth Lochhead and David Farr, wanted a character-based action thriller. Hanna is that film, but it could have been a more thriller vehicle if more attention was spent on the realities of their dramatic setup. The problem with making Hanna a super kid warrior is that she needs either BETTER competition or MORE competition. Pick one. But having a small number of inferior toughs seems like the worst outcome for people who want solid, sustainable action.
The plot of Hanna is fairly conventional but the style and feel of the film are anything but. Wright has assembled a first-class art-thriller that would have been a work of true greatness if the plot could have gotten itself figured out. Splitting time between action set pieces and a family road trip is not an ideal use of running time. The action works fantastic, that is, when it does make its too-brief appearances. I’ve read several comparisons to Run Lola Run due to the stylized visuals, pace-setting electronica score, and likely general German setting, but I feel these comparisons are surface-level; Lola was a firecracker of style and energy rarely replicated in film (it’s my go-to film to show people who are self-described haters of foreign films). Hanna is no Lola, but Hanna is still a class ahead of her peers. Wright and company have produced a film that is moody, stylish, thrilling, and just a little bit ridiculous. As Hanna says to her prey, she just missed your heart. Whether that’s by design or accident, we’ll never know.
Nate’s Grade: B
This is one of those movies that are so sharp, so bristling with intelligence, that you practically need to have a remote control glued to your mitt so that you can rewind and catch all the jokes. I turned the subtitles on myself just to make sure I could get everything. This British comedy is a wicked satire of the miscommunication and blunders that lead the U.S. and Britain into declaring war on a Middle Eastern country. There are some topical jabs but so much of the humor comes from the fractious character interaction; there is a real joy to watching these larger-than-life personalities clash over the course of two nations. It’s fascinating and biting and plays out like a more profane version of The West Wing. The cast is fantastic from top to bottom, with special notice going to My Girl‘s Anna Chlumsky all grown up and perfect with comic timing, and Peter Capaldi as the fearsome, fire-breathing British Director of Communications who can split an epithet like nobody’s business. You might expect his head to burst with how apoplectic he can get. This may be the most quotable comedy in years; every line of this screenplay is gold. There are Hollywood comedies that would kill for just one or two of the choice lines here, but In the Loop is chock full of the funny. It’s a machine gun spray of comedy. Something this scathing and this brilliant doesn’t come along every day.
Nate’s Grade: A