Let’s get the basics out of the way. Bird Box is the newest Netflix Original derived from a novel by Josh Malerman. It stars Sandra Bullock who was unbelievable and a whole host of other big name character actors including John Malkovich and Mr. Robot’s BD Wong. It had an Oscar Award-winning director in Susanne Bier, and it should have been unbelievable with all that firepower. It turned out to be pretty good but just as in the novel there is a lot of murky details about who the monsters are, what they want, and why seeing them affects people so differently.
Beware there are spoilers below.
In the film Sandra Bullock’s character Malorie, a pregnant artist, witnesses the literal end of the known world as her sister tragically kills herself along with most of the world. For unknown reasons, there are monsters who when seen cause severe mental illness and for most people almost immediate suicide. She takes refuge inside a house with a ragtag band of other survivors and eventually another pregnant woman. Things are not ideal, and the numbers dwindle fairly quickly until, as both women go into labor the newest addition to the group, Gary, reveals himself to be one of the enraptured survivors who strive to force everyone to witness the “beauty” of the monsters. This madman ends up forcing everyone except for Malorie, Tom(Trevante Rhodes) and the newborn babies to either open their eyes and kill themselves or he does the killing for them. Tom manages to kill Gary, and the family survives together for the next five years until more of the enraptured force Tom to open his eyes and Malorie and the children make a break for the river blindfolded.
From there they will navigate the river including rapids blind and traipse through a forest(still blind) trying to find a refuge heard about through a walkie-talkie. To say the trek will be harrowing is an understatement. Glimpses of the trip down the river are sliced together with the scenes of the house survivors. Malorie and the children manage to survive long enough to find the sanctuary which turns out to be ironically a home for the blind. The film does a good job staying fairly faithful to the novel. Sandra Bullock is very good. The remaining ensemble cast does quite a bit with very little actual screen time. Rhodes and Malkovich in particular both bring a grounded realism to their respective roles that feel all too plausible. The fear is entirely psychological, and as such there are no visual creatures, very little gore, and no clear Big Bad to defeat. Perhaps the biggest fear however, is losing your mind. Being unable to protect yourself and those around you. This is the sweet spot of both the film, and the novel and it is from there that the biggest mysteries are seen.
How do the creatures affect us?
As we watch the demise of civilization, it becomes clear the people fall into three camps; the ones who see the creatures and commit suicide, the ones who see the creatures and become obsessed with making everyone else look, and the ones who don’t ever look. The novel and film’s premise stems from a plague brought on by looking upon the creatures. This causes severe depression or fear that is so intense the person kills themselves or psychotic euphoria and obsession in the “enraptured”. These people’s one and only desire in life are to have everyone see the creatures. Gary explains that the inmates of an insane asylum broke out of the facility and fell heavily into the disciples camp. It is unclear whether Gary, who at first claims to be a survivor of this incident but later reveals he actually saw the creatures as he draws them in creepy black and white detail ad nauseum, was a patient himself or if he for some reason had a mental illness which made him a convert instead of suicidal.
The concept is that those who were already plagued by mental illness already had seen their worst fears or been dealing with psychic attacks their whole lives. The sane people were barraged with images so bleak or heartbreaking they were forced to kill themselves. This is why some people see their family members, others see terrifying images, and Gary saw all kinds of fantastical monsters. Each of his charcoal drawings is horrifying and very different from the one before. The creatures seem to have limited ability to affect the world around them outside of their mental prowess. They cause leaves and Girl’s hair to swirl but cannot actually harm anything without the help of their converts and sight.
Why don’t the monsters attack us?
The creatures probably do not have any corporeal form they simply take the image of whatever they need to be to affect the person viewing them. A monster of completely psychological structure and powers. This is the most frightening component of the film. Loss of vision and danger from unseen beasts are bad sure, but loss of mental faculty is end-game scary. Their ability is akin to a mob mentality contagion or a hallucinogenic toxic exposure. The effect is almost immediate, and there are physical side effects. The irises of the afflicted become striated. Those exposed cannot maintain their grip on sanity for long, but some can avoid suicide long enough to protect those they love as in the case with Tom and Olympia.
What are the creatures?
Several of the survivors in the house posit theories that the monsters are demons or weapons of biological warfare. Charlie(Lil Rel Howrey) thinks the creatures are agents of the Apocalypse. They are demons from any number of religions who infect minds and cleanse the earth. The non-corporeal form idea would play nicely here as demons are said not to have any form of their own only the ability to possess their hosts. There are harbingers of the End of Days in almost every major religion across the globe. The possibility of aliens who fly over in cloaked ships and drop telekinetic mind bombs on everyone is a possibility too, but if you had that kind of technology at your disposal, I think you could come up with a less convoluted plan for world domination.
What’s with the birds?
Before any discussion can be had about why birds seem to be the only animals left alive, the near impossibility of Malorie’s birds surviving the dip in the freezing cold river in a box with holes in it needs to be pointed out. Even if they did not drown in their box, they should have died from the cold. These were tropical birds and should not have survived the cold temperatures. Now that I have that pesky bit of house cleaning taken care of, why were the birds able to sense the creatures. Miners have used birds almost since the beginning to determine the safety of the mine. If a bird goes silent or worse yet dies the air has been compromised, and the miners should escape ASAP. In addition to that birds in mythology are psychopomps and spirit people between the world of life and death. A group of crows is called a murder and who is not familiar with Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven? The ancient Egyptians had two Gods who had bird heads, Horus God of the Sky and Thoth God of Wisdom. With a mentally superior opponent wreaking havoc all across the world who better to help us hapless humans than those who once served the Gods? Having a bird fly into your home is a portent of death and ancient cultures across the world each have their own unique stories features death and birds.
Regardless of whether the creatures are otherworldly or supernatural the real meaning of the movie is one of hope. Blind faith if you will in yourself, others around you and the innate happiness that is possible when you let yourself hope and love. As Malorie releases her birds and names her children she finally accepts that life can be something other than survival. One last irony, Netflix cancelled their show about a blind superhero shortly before they gave us Bird Box. Makes you think, right? Daredevil would be the perfect superhero for this situation.