“That’s Something You Can’t Unsee”: Josh Pearce and Arley Sorg Discuss Bird Box

Josh: When we reviewed A Quiet Place earlier this year, I said that it reminded me of Josh Malerman’s book Bird Box. What do you think? Fair comparison? There are definite similarities: unexplained monsters come to town; humans have to give themselves a handicap in order to survive; there’s a pregnant woman at the forefront; save the children!

Arley: It’s different, but similar. Even though the filmmakers of Bird Box had Malerman’s book and A Quiet Place on which to improve, we agree that A Quiet Place was a better movie. There were parts of that which we both liked, whereas this movie was just not good.

Bird Box is told in dual timelines. The first opens five years into a global apocalypse, brought on by creatures so terrible to look upon that they drive human beings suicidally insane. Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and her two children “Girl” (Vivien Lyra Blair) and “Boy” (Julian Edwards) must travel blindfolded down a river to reach sanctuary.

Arley: I feel like it was a mistake for them to start with her talking to her kids in this intense scene, which builds a lot of suspense that just immediately vanishes. It should have been a linear film from there rather than spending so much time in flashbacks. That would have led to a nice escalation of tension. Instead, we’re taken to a scene with Malorie talking to her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson), which was so emotionless, so cold, we might as well have had a narrator or voiceover instead. It only served to make us like the characters less.

The second time period shows the progression of the apocalypse, and as people all around her go mad, Malorie gives birth to her child in a barricaded house owned by Greg (BD Wong). Other survivors living in the house with them include: gun-toting curmudgeon Douglas (John Malkovich); another pregnant woman, Olympia (Danielle Macdonald); and Malorie’s eventual love interest Tom (Trevante Rhodes), along with a handful of other expendables. The main threat to these survivors isn’t the big eldritch horrors outside, but a roving gang of escaped mental patients who are supposedly immunized by their pre-existing insanity, and who wish to convert all remaining humans by forcing them to look upon the monsters.

Arley: They keep flashing back five or six years and then going forward and Malorie has learned nothing. In A Quiet Place they’ve established traps and fortifications but in this movie she’s learned no skills, built no fortifications. If the main threat to your survival is a group of crazy people, you would have a gun in every room. You would have safe rooms, traps, escape routes. If the film had just stuck to the trek through the woods, kept with the intensity of the opening scene, showing her trying to keep the kids alive in all these dangerous situations, it would have been a really interesting horror story. Instead they have these same post-apocalypse situations that we’ve seen a million times.

Josh: This movie can be compared almost directly to Night of the Living Dead, The Mist, The Walking Dead, and a bunch of horror movies that rely on the trope of you see something, you die, or you go insane and then die. Including, but not limited to, The Ring/Ringu, VHS, Truth or Dare, and even the Cthulhu mythos.

Arley: Well, it is a Cthulhu story. They had drawings of the monsters and there’s even one with face-tentacles. The monsters looked cool. That was one of my favorite parts of the movie.

Josh: In this film adaptation, I guess it could be Cthulhu? We don’t really know. We’re never explicitly told. Just because it has tentacles doesn’t mean it’s Cthulhu. One of the characters goes on and on about all the examples in different myths and he mentions pucas. So there is an overabundance of possible explanations, but nothing definitive, and that’s kind of frustrating. It’s not frightening so much as it’s confusing, and seeing charcoal sketches of the monster doesn’t scare me.

Arley: Think about how hard would it be to determine that the threat is simply from looking at something, without someone explaining that to you. And if they’re giant creatures with a physical impact on the world, why aren’t they grabbing people?

Josh: What is the real threat? If the only danger is you harming yourself, then why even flee these creatures? Just keep your blindfold on. Why does it benefit the creature for people to kill themselves, anyway? It’s not eating the dead bodies. Is it a sorting thing to find the psychotic people who will… worship it? I liked your point that the one crazy guy was like Renfield from Dracula. That was a good comparison because Renfield was in an asylum, also. This guy’s big scene was the strongest in the movie because something interesting was finally happening. An hour and twenty minutes into this two-hour movie.

Arley: One of the other strong parts was near the beginning when people start going crazy. I thought that was a really good chaos scene.

The reveal of information in Bird Box is uneven and often suspiciously convenient. In addition to the clumsy attempts at sympathetic backstory, characters stop in the middle of dangerous situations to spew extraneous facts at each other, rather than focusing on practical concerns such as barricading the doors, scrounging for weapons, or other matters of immediate survival. Malerman’s novel has almost the opposite problem, in that very little information is given about anything. The whole world suffers from “white room syndrome.” In a novel full of blind people, this makes a certain amount of sense, though the writing should then rely on descriptions other than visual. In a movie where the threat cannot be seen, or even described, the burden of audience engagement is even greater.

Josh: I was originally going to say, where are all the actual blind people? And then at the end, they’re all magically at the school for the blind. Uh, where are the other blind people and why aren’t they having free reign through the city? Are the psycho people hunting them? So, overall, you have to slog through so much cliché to get to one finally interesting scene of tension, and then go back into dumb decisions that lead to an inexplicable resolution. Which is, overall, unsatisfying.

Arley: A Quiet Place tried to at least explore what it would be like to live in this kind of situation. This movie skipped over the day-to-day details. Five years later, she’s finally thinking of giving the kid a bell, so she can find the kid and so on. You would have given that kid a bell at birth. You would want to always know where your kid is if you can’t see them, in this world of monsters. In that opening scene, even though I like the intensity of the scene, this would be a speech that the kids would have heard over and over and could probably recite to her.

Most of the characters are flat, the performances wooden. Two characters exist only to be young and sexually attracted to each other, before vanishing entirely from the story. Sandra Bullock fails to convincingly portray a woman who grows from a misanthrope to a loving mother, and the scenes with her sister are so saccharine that we can easily anticipate the sister’s inevitable gruesome death.

Arley: The movie is supposed to be about Malorie’s personal transformation, but it’s so forced. Ugh, how annoying. She’s a privileged white woman, doing art in her private studio somewhere in the Bay Area, and she’s “disconnected from people”… [is speechless]

Josh: And we don’t care.

Arley: Right. They’re relying on her being a pregnant woman to gain our sympathies but we simply don’t care about her.

Josh: John Malkovich was hella annoying. He was such a cliché and usually the annoying asshole guy does something self-sacrificial at the end to redeem his (usually his) earlier assholery but in this he didn’t. He was just drunk and an asshole, firing his gun wildly. You wanna say anything about all the dead minorities?

Arley: Oh yes, thank you, I almost forgot. How could I forget? Once they established main characters, including the white woman, they started killing off minorities. The only two Black characters, both Black guys, were both blue-collar workers. One worked in a grocery store and the other worked construction, in a house filled with obviously affluent people. And all the minorities died.

Josh: All except the psychiatrist, yeah. So overall, A Quiet Place did a better job of telling a similar story, and Bird Box the novel was more effective at conveying the horror elements than this movie.

Arley: Besides Malorie’s heavy-handed arc from distant to attached, the emotional impact they tried to make was: will I sacrifice this other person’s kid. But they glossed over it, rushed through it too quickly for the audience to get invested. I would have built the whole movie around it. I would have had Malorie try to sacrifice the other person’s kid, and then had her own kid die, and she has to live with the kid who survived. Because that would have been heartbreaking and emotional—

Josh: And an actual horror….

Arley: —having to live with each other after that.

Shortly after the movie’s release, Netflix had to ask fans to stop participating in the “Bird Box challenge”—running around outside while blindfolded. Rather tellingly, not even Netflix finds it believable that someone can do this for very long without running face-first into a tree.

Directed by: Susanne Bier

Written by: Eric Heisserer, based on the novel by: Josh Malerman

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Jacki Weaver, Rosa Salazar, Danielle Macdonald, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, Machine Gun Kelly, BD Wong, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Vivien Lyra Blair & Julian Edwards.

Josh Pearce, Arley Sorg (by Laurel Amberdine)

ARLEY SORG, Associate Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.

JOSH PEARCE, Assistant Editor, started working at Locus in 2016. He studied creative writing at SFSU and has sold short stories and poems to a variety of speculative fiction magazines. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he currently lives in the East Bay with his wife and son and spends way too much time on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.

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