Susanne Bier's Bird Box became a cultural phenomenon at the end of 2018. The Netflix original film had one of the most popular debuts in the streaming service's history, with over 46 million accounts watching in the first week of its release.
With its immense popularity, Bird Box inspired a surplus of Twitter memes and even a dangerous "Bird Box challenge" that Netflix publicly condemned. But what's more dangerous are the problematic ideologies Bird Box assigns to mental illness and suicide-and how they're made out to be the cause of the world's demise.
Based on the 2014 novel by Josh Malerman, Bird Box takes place during the apocalypse. Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is a homebody painter, standoffish and cold but soon expecting a child. One day, while coming home from a doctor's appointment, she sees the world take a turn for the worse as people's eyes grow puffy and they become compelled by a monster to do things that will kill them: driving cars into trees, banging their heads against glass walls, or shooting themselves.
The monster is amorphous, taking the form of something in the light or the atmosphere. So people are warned to block out any light coming in from outside and wear blindfolds if they have to brave the outside world for food and supplies. Later we learn that patients with mental illness have been conscripted as tools of the monster. This is not a new concept: mental illness and suicide are common sources of inspiration for horror movies and thrillers. But Bird Box exploits mental illness rather than providing a genuine commentary on it.
Bird Box is split up into two parts. The first shows the beginning of the apocalypse. The second takes place five years later, when Malorie takes a two-day journey down the river in search of refuge. The time frames switch constantly throughout the film's bloated two-hour run time, but the focus is put on the former.
In the beginning of the apocalypse, Malorie takes shelter in a home with nine other people hiding from the outside. Since there are so many characters, most go undeveloped. They're reduced to basic identifiers: a grumpy old man, a grocery store employee, a police officer, et cetera. The movie creates basic relationships between some of them to make them seem more human, but there's no real character development. Over the course of this narrative, the crew diminishes one by one-but their deaths are inconsequential because the audience is not given any reason to care about them as characters. There is little to latch on to in Bird Box because the film fails to develop its own world or effectively build tension, and features a cast that is too crowded for its own good.
It's problematic enough that the supposed monster of Bird Box is an all-consuming desire to kill oneself as it reduces a very real result of mental illness to a series of scares. But the film manages to introduce an more harmful ideology in the second half. Once the crew gets into a routine of survival, they let in yet another survivor named Gary (Tom Hollander). He says that even more dangerous than the monster are patients escaping from mental hospitals. They don't need blindfolds-they are happy and smiling-and they forcibly take off the blindfolds of those are not ill to make them look at the monster and see what they see.
These patients are the ones Malorie and her companions should be afraid of because they are immune to the monster and they are compelled to make those who are not immune give in to the urge to commit suicide. The apocalypse is even referred to as a divine punishment for humanity by Charlie the grocery store employee (Lil Rel Howery)-but what are the implications when that punishment is a choice between mental illness or suicide?
Bird Box makes its characters-and its audience-believe that neither mental illness nor suicide are worth complex analysis. They are mechanics to scare and entertain audiences and nothing more-making people with mental illness seem inhuman, nothing more than the worst characteristics of their illnesses. It's easier to see Malorie shield her eyes and rise above the compulsions of the monster than to understand its motivations or why any of this is happening in the first place. When we see mental illness as an objective darkness that can be weaponized, it absolves those who think people with mental illness are evil. This is heightened when characters with mental illness onscreen are the direct cause of harm to those who seemingly don't deserve it.
Bird Box tries to comment on the intricacies of trauma and survival but instead uses dangerous misconceptions of mental illness and gratuitous displays of suicide for shock value. It doesn't even bother to distinguish between different mental illnesses. Mental illness and suicide operate as cheap, lazy villains that are easy to hate because they make healthy people ill for amusement of the sick. The audience is not told to care whether or how the characters survive but what to be afraid of-and they are told repeatedly that the real monster is people with mental illness. v