Bird Box Review
About half of my Facebook newsfeed is baby/wedding pictures (that's what happens when you're from rural Pennsylvania) and the other half is Bird Box memes. So I figured I'd see what all the fuss was about and spend a cloudy Sunday afternoon watching the latest Netflix hit.
In case you haven't seen it yet, Bird Box is the latest in a line of movies about Sandra Bullock saving herself from outrageous dangers, complete with flashbacks and hallucinations. Set in California in the near future, the movie follows Malorie (Sandra Bullock) as she tries to survive in a world where creatures can cause you to kill yourself if you look at them. Basically, this movie is Netflix's response to A Quiet Place, but instead of not being able to make noise, people aren't allowed to see.
Overall, it was a well done movie. Sci-fi thrillers aren't really my cup of tea, but I can appreciate good work. The characters were believable and their personalities drove the story forward instead of forceful plot devices. I was impressed by the acting, especially near the end of the movie when Malorie nears the compound. And I did think the movie was visually striking (ironically).
But I'm not an expert in acting or filmmaking; I'm an expert in worldbuilding and storytelling, and that's what I want to focus on here. Below, I'll discuss how Bird Box did and didn't follow the different rules of worldbuilding.
1. Establish the laws of your world:
"Under no circumstance are you allowed to take off your blindfold,"
Well if that isn't the most effective and up-front way of establishing the most important law of a story's world, then I don't know what is. Bullock's character literally says this in the first 90 seconds of the movie, and it really gets the job done. Right away, I know what the rules in the story are, but I'm still wondering WHY. Why is it so important to stay blindfolded? What will happen if they don't?
And over the course of the movie, the audience learns the answers to those questions organically, not in some clunky exposition. The next words out of Malorie's mouth aren't "Because if you do, kids, then the creatures that arrived five years ago will mess with your brain and cause you to kill yourself! Doesn't that sound scary?" No, we learn what's going on through the flashbacks that allow us to figure things out right alongside the characters.
But aside from that, the movie didn't tell us much. There are still a lot of questions left unanswered.
- Why are some people immune to whatever the creatures do?
- How do the creatures work? Are they invisible unless they choose to reveal themselves to you? Can you only view them from certain angles? Why didn't Malorie see anything when her sister was driving the car? Because unless she has the world's worst peripheral vision, she would have seen the same creature her sister saw.
- Why don't the creatures come inside?
- Why do the creatures only cause aural hallucinations at the end of the movie?
- What are the creatures? Where did they come from?
And yeah, I know that the movie was about Malorie and her kids getting to safety and that they probably wouldn't have had the opportunity to find the answers to those questions what with all of their energy going toward surviving. But even though I just praised the movie for letting the audience learn along with the characters, it is still incredibly unsatisfying to finish the movie without understanding how the evil thing works.
2. Follow your laws and maintain internal coherence: Every single time a character on screen looks outside, they go crazy and end up killing themselves. So for the most part, Bird Box follows their one law pretty closely.
Except for one thing. And yes, I know I'm nit-picking here.
In one of the flashbacks, Tom tells the kids a story about running around a lake as a young boy, climbing trees and seeing birds. The kids nod along as if they understand everything he's saying, but they've literally never been allowed outside without blindfolds. How do they know what lakes and trees look like? How can they imagine climbing one? Maybe Malorie and Tom showed them pictures in books, or found DVDs in one of the abandoned houses they managed to get two in their five years together. But if that's the case, the writers should have been more clear. Tom should have been holding a picture book or something while he told his story.
3. Pick the right medium to expose your audience to your world: This rule is new, so I thank Bird Box for making me think of it.
In college, I took a trans-media storytelling class where I learned that different stories work best in different media. Fantasy books are great for non-visual media because they allow the audience to really use their imagination. In general, poetry is best experienced in audio format so you can hear the intended pauses and inflections. Rap music can be difficult to fully appreciate when it's written down for the same reasons, and also because it relies so heavily on subtle homophones that become glaringly obvious when put to paper.
I said earlier that Bird Box reminded me of A Quiet Place, which was able to build suspense and immerse the audience by eliminating a lot of sound. The movie was eerily silent in a way that told me how terrifying it must be to live in a world where making noise means nearly certain death. It took advantage of its visual media platform. But Bird Box didn't have the same effect.
Imagine how much more powerful the Bird Box experience would have been if it weren't a movie at all, but a radio play. Or some mixed media thing where part of the movie was on screen, but every time the characters were blindfolded, the screen went dark and the audience had to follow the story with audio clues.
Bird Box has made me realize that we're doing ourselves a disservice by making movies the default medium for mass-distributing stories. Because maybe the story wouldn't have been so popular as a radio play and my newsfeed wouldn't be so full of Bird Box memes, but for the few who did "see" it, it would have been a bone-chilling experience.