Bird Box or (The Unexpected Virtues of Streaming)

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– By James Powers –

So I’m a solid three weeks late to the party, but I finally got around to watching Netflix’s Bird Box, the Sandra Bullock thriller vehicle that has inexplicably taken the Internet by storm since its release over the holidays. According to Netflix, who are very secretive about their viewership statistics except when they want to brag, the film pulled in over 45 million (million?!) views in its first week and has continued to perform strongly. That exact number has been met with some understandable skepticism, as it is more or less impossible to corroborate (although Nielsen will do their darndest). But in any event it’s obvious from the ensuing memes and YouTube-fueled stupidity that, for some reason or other, Bird Box is Netflix’s biggest viral sensation since Stranger Things. And like all viral sensations, this one seems as random as a lightning strike, caused by a dizzying variety of potential factors – no one of which will likely provide a satisfactory explanation. Part of it is surely Sandra Bullock’s star power, part of it the ready-made audience of holiday homebodies it landed on, part of it the obvious resemblance to last year’s A Quiet Place.

But I think one of the most notable things about the success of Bird Box is the fact that, on the whole, it’s actually a rather mediocre film, stuck right around 60% on Rotten Tomatoes. And no, I’m not trying to say that the masses have no taste – they do. In fact, it is because of their taste that Bird Box has taken off. The film doesn’t quite stack up to audiences’ expectations of a compelling thriller – but in in the streaming ecosystem, paradoxically, it seems that clumsy execution can reward a film where it would punish a theatrical release. Which honestly is kind of brilliant.

Like A Quiet Place, Bird Box is set in a post-apocalyptic world reeling from the sudden arrival of creatures that exploit one of our senses – in this case, unnamed entities that drive anyone who sees them to suicidal madness (hence the blindfolds in all those memes). A few survivors of this psychological massacre manage to barricade themselves in a house, and from there a lot of typical end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it beats play out. There’s infighting, and desperate supply runs, and cryptically hopeful radio broadcasts, and a nihilistic cult that embraces the disaster rather than trying to overcome it. Pretty standard stuff. To be fair, though, I found it far from boring, largely because the otherwise formulaic story gets a serious jolt from its cast’s commitment. Bullock is searing in the lead role, and her supporting players form a fiery tail on the comet, most notably John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes and Danielle Macdonald.

Now, if Bird Box were merely a boilerplate post-apocalyptic thriller, the dynamism of its performances would probably be enough to redeem it. But it isn’t just that. The tragedy about this film is that there really is a unique spark to its premise, similarities to A Quiet Place aside. Where that film focuses on the deprivation of sound, this one focuses on the deprivation of sight. Actually, it focuses not so much on the deprivation of sight as its corruption, going so far as to suggest that to see is to go mad. Implicitly, the question then becomes: would you rather be blind, or insane? That’s wonderfully simple, scary stuff. But what writer Eric Heisserer and director Susanne Bier seem to have forgotten is that even the most compelling concept will die in the cold if it isn’t bundled up in a thick, tightly knit story. It’s not that the two are bad storytellers – the former wrote 2016’s brilliant Arrival, and the latter has won awards up the ying (including an Oscar) for her work in her native Denmark. Nonetheless, it seems like they kinda phoned it in this time, not going far beyond the literal and the obvious in exploring their premise. The spark is there, but they don’t do much to fan it.

So why, amid the glut of other content on Netflix, has Bird Box sustained such huge momentum? I think this is due to it being such a mixed bag, not in spite of that. Weird, yes, but it actually makes a backward sort of sense on a streaming platform, whereas a phenomenon like this could not have possibly occurred in theaters. Had Bird Box been a theatrical release, it would not have made a ripple. Yes, Sandra Bullock would have likely pulled in a healthy crowd the first weekend, and I imagine a similar effect was at work when the film first dropped on Netflix. But in theaters, after those first audiences go home to family and friends and compare the film unfavorably to A Quiet Place, everyone would opt to spend their $10 or $15 on something else the next weekend. Whereas if you have a Netflix subscription (or someone else’s to mooch), you can just watch it for free. So even if you’re sitting on the couch a week after the movie dropped, and you’ve heard from friends or Rotten Tomatoes a that the film is meh, you don’t lose anything by giving it a try. But there’s also no compelling reason to give it a try, so why not watch something else?

Welp, now we get to the memes.  

Most of us are likely familiar with the potentially deadly power of meme culture to take any vaguely amusing image and milk it for maximum absurdity. Really, there isn’t any point in trying to avoid it: getting serially roasted on Imgur is pretty much just the result of bad luck. If you work hard enough, almost every movie still or stock photo ever could be made suggestive or laughably relatable. But something about Bird Box seems to have made it especially susceptible to memery, and I think it has a lot to do with the rather superficial, literal approach it takes to its premise. Put simply, much of what happens in the film is just a bit silly when you look at it out of context. For example: someone steering a car using only its proximity sensors; a man forcing an old woman’s eyes open while she shrieks in protest; or, perhaps worst of all, a woman piloting herself and two children through rapids in a canoe while blindfolded.

“Aw come on,” you might protest, “any movie will have stuff happen that seems ridiculous out of context.” Agreed. But that makes said context all the more important. Is the world of the film, as a whole, rendered convincingly enough for us to buy its absurdities? A Quiet Place largely pulled this off. Bird Box, for my money, does not, and the lackluster world-building undermines those parts of the film that are otherwise effective. Not that there aren’t some genuine scares to be had here. There definitely are. But when the film is peppered with moments – even just a few – that make you hold in a snort of laughter, or at least raise one eyebrow, then it’s hard for the impact of the real scares to stick. Nonetheless, if you were sitting in a theater, you’d still give the movie the benefit of the doubt so you got your money’s worth, Then maybe you’d recount that one laughable moment to your friends later, but otherwise, you’d likely forget about the movie.

But those slightly miscalculated, subtly comic moments that you would otherwise forget are the stuff of dreams – er, memes. And guess what, you’re watching this film not in a theater, but on your laptop. So when you get to that one rather goofy moment with the woman getting her eyes held open – pause, screenshot, and boom. You share it on Instagram, tag it #birdbox, your friend sees it and thinks, “huh, isn’t that that movie that was all over Netflix yesterday?” Turns out it is, and he doesn’t want to study right now, so hey, why not? And next thing you know, he’s one of 45 million. Allegedly. Because the film wasn’t that great, not in spite of that.

Ultimately, I think the phenomenal success of Bird Box gives us a shining example of just how different the rules are for streaming films as opposed to theatrical ones. When huge amounts of content are available to consumers for free (at least more or less, under a subscription model), it changes the rules of engagement in ways far more dramatic than merely deciding to stay home from the theater. For example, an otherwise middling film can become a meme sensation. But savvy though Netflix may be, I don’t imagine that this is the reaction they anticipated. I take Bird Box as an indicator that, despite all the algorithms and focus groups and market research, it’s ultimately impossible to predict what will make a bunch of antsy humans cry, shiver or laugh, or why it should do so. Which is kind of a relief.


About the Author

James Powers is currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.

For all articles by James, click here.

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