Does anyone remember “The Happening” from way back in 2008?
Well, you should.
“The Happening” should be forever commemorated as what happens when M. Night Shyamalan and Mark Wahlberg are given unrestricted access to studio money. I don’t actually know if their access was unrestricted, but I can tell you that, after seeing the movie, the access should have been exactly none.
“The Happening” is the worst film from both of these, arguably, talented filmmakers, and is in the running for worst movie of the millennium. It’s terrible. Which is why it’s so surprising that this week’s “Bird Box,” the smash hit from Netflix and bizarrely similar remake, is so good.
OK, a couple of things.
One, “Bird Box” isn’t a remake of “The Happening.” It just feels like it’s the same movie, or at least takes place during the same event. Or happening. But as far as I know, the two movies have nothing to do with each other.
“Bird Box” is based on a book by Josh Malerman. I don’t know if Malerman is a secret Shyamalan fan or not. Also, “Bird Box” is a smash hit according to Netflix — which has its own internal tallying system that is kept completely secret — so I guess we have to take their word for it. But I’d say it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I know I was more prone to look this up because I’d heard it was really good. Turns out to be true, but “Bright” was also hailed as a smash hit by the network and that was awful. So I guess you have to take it with a grain of salt. Regardless of whether you believe Netflix’s numbers, however, the movie is taut and engaging, well-acted and very satisfying.
Sandra Bullock is Malorie, an introverted artist who is jealously protective of her independence. It’s no surprise, then, that she takes an ill view of her pregnancy and impending motherhood. When asked by her obstetrician what names she’s considering, Girl and Boy are all she can muster. Little does Malorie know that very soon she’s going to have bigger problems.
Abruptly around the world, people begin committing suicide, the precipitating event being something that the victim saw right before. Almost without warning, the world descends into chaos and the few people who are able to survive huddle in doors with the blinds drawn. Malorie finds herself holed up in a house with a ragtag group including Trevante Rhodes as an ex-soldier, an antagonistic lawyer played by John Malkovich and his gay neighbor, played by B.D. Wong, among others.
There may be safety in numbers, but Malorie takes no pleasure in the company, especially the attention from the one other pregnant woman, a kind, yet needy girl named Olympia.
Gradually, the group discovers that birds appear to be particularly sensitive to whatever is causing the deaths, going into hysterics whenever “it” comes near. Later, Marjorie and two children brave a raging river along with a box of birds to warn them of certain death, hence the title of the film.
You can infer what happens to the characters in the film, but to tell too much would be to spoil it. Malorie on the river with Girl and Boy is the present; her time in the house with the others the past.
“Bird Box” is first and foremost a thriller and a good one at that. I actually thought this movie was going to be a rip off of last year’s “A Quiet Place” when I saw the first trailers, and it does have a little of the same sensibility, but there is more going on here, and the danger is certainly less defined.
The entire film works as an allegory of Malorie’s fear of motherhood and the terror that parents feel constantly, worrying not only about unknown dangers that might reach out grab your children, but also about the frightening and uncontrollable influence of the outside world. Parents are constantly worried that their children will literally “see” something that will scar or damage them beyond help.
In reality, what parents fear is change, the loss of innocence, and Malorie guards herself from that fear by refusing to fully engage with the children. The responsibility of their care is so crushing that she withholds affection in favor of harsh practicality.
Malorie is not a particularly likeable character and Sandra Bullock does an excellent job creating a completely believable portrayal of a selfish person who is driven to do the right thing.
All the characters are well done, particularly Malkovich’s lawyer who seems to take the opposite track from Malorie, allowing his bitterness to turn to cynicism and finally hatred after seeing his wife die. He’s not a stock character, however. Director Susanne Bier give each of her characters an interesting arc, some getting more than others, certainly, but each one feeling at least vaguely rounded.
The writing in the film is the star — probably the biggest difference between this film and “The Happening.” Not only is the film engaging, but works on multiple levels. The filmmakers are confident enough to keep the terror offscreen, which somehow makes it scarier, as well as keeping the budget down, I’m sure.
The movie is certainly not devoid of violence, some of it fairly shocking, but don’t go in expecting a traditional horror film. “Bird Box” is that rare film that delivers both visceral and emotional thrills. It’s not the best movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly a positive start to 2019. Grade: A
“Bird Box” is rated R for violence and language.
Chris Jenness is an art instructor at Soldotna High School and is currently reading “The Forever War” by Joe Haldeman.
• By CHRIS JENNESS, Now Playing