The success of “Bird Box” is all about timing. The Sandra Bullock-starring post-apocalyptic thriller, which premiered on Netflix Dec. 21 after a brief theatrical release, was reportedly watched by more than 45 million subscribers in its first week. If accurate — the streaming service is notoriously dodgy about releasing viewer data — it would mean nearly one-third of all Netflix subscribers tuned in, making it the biggest release for an original film on the service to date.
Those numbers owe a lot to the film’s release in the end-of-year holiday window when people are on vacation, lounging around the house and likely desperate for a reprieve from family time. Netflix has previously had big wins releasing shows in this sweet spot with “Black Mirror” season four in 2017 and “Making a Murderer” in 2015.
I provide this context to attempt to explain why “Bird Box” has become such a viral hit, because the film itself isn’t much to squawk about. As far as horror films go, this is paint-by-numbers.
Bullock plays Malorie, an expecting mother who seeks refuge with a houseful of strangers when a mysterious force drives people to mass suicide and leads to societal collapse. The only way to survive outside is to remain blindfolded at all times, since one glimpse at the omnipresent force will lead to certain self-inflicted death. Five years later, Malorie and two young children embark on a perilous, blindfolded journey downriver in search of a purported sanctuary safe from the sinister threat.
Director Susanne Bier (“In a Better World”) does a nice job establishing the eerie tone that ripples throughout the film. She also makes a smart choice not to show or over-explain the monsters, which are suggested to be supernatural demons but never depicted as more than rustling leaves and ominous whispers.
Hardened by five years of terror and loss, Bullock’s Malorie is a chilly and stern parental figure. She bluntly explains the stakes of their trip to the two children in her care, essentially terrifying them into obedience. Her tone is unsettling, as is the impossible choice she believes she must make to complete the journey, but it’s that kind of cold pragmatism that has kept them alive for so long.
Bullock is joined by a strong supporting cast that includes Sarah Paulson, Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, Lil Rel Howery, BD Wong and John Malkovich.
The claustrophobic, paranoid, strangers-forced-to-work-together nature of the character relationships has a familiar post-apocalyptic feel. The cycle of distrust-trust-betrayal is very much “The Walking Dead,” as are the supply runs, which inevitably spell doom for someone.
Our heroes must also contend with the threat of the people who have gazed at the monsters and survived. These individuals, who saw beauty rather than madness, now roam about like crazed zealots, forcing others to look in order to cleanse the world.
While the film generates some legitimately tense moments, there are no real surprises here. It all plays out as expected, including the tidy, unsurprising ending. Compared to other, more ambitious, recent horror releases like “Get Out,” “A Quiet Place” and “Hereditary,” “Bird Box” looks rather ordinary. But the combination of good casting and better timing proves to be a recipe for success in today’s viral, on-demand box office.
“Bird Box” is now streaming on Netflix.