If ever you find yourself trying to survive the end of the world, don’t look to Malorie (Sandra Bullock) for an inspiring pep talk. “Bird Box” begins with her telling two small children to do exactly as she says if they want to survive, with the most important lesson being to never remove their blindfolds — if they look at it, they will die. We won’t know what it is for some time, but the urgency in her voice comes across to us just as clearly as it does to Boy and Girl (the meaning of whose names — or lack thereof — will likewise be made clear in time).
Bullock convincingly transforms herself into a gritty survivalist in Susanne Bier’s gripping thriller, which brings to mind everything from “The Road” to “The Happening” as it carves a space for itself in the post-apocalyptic canon. She’s joined in the ensemble by Trevante Rhodes, Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, and Lil Rel Howery; though all of them contribute to the dour milieu in their own ways, it’s Rhodes who most impresses. The physical charisma he brought to “Moonlight” is on full display here, with his Tom acting as the kind of stabilizing force that out-there narratives like this require.
Flashbacks set five years before Malorie’s speech reveal that a spate of unexplained mass suicides began in Eastern Europe before creeping across the globe, with no one understanding how or why; all anyone seems to know is that looking upon a certain entity inspires such profound sorrow in the beholder that he or she is instantly compelled to commit suicide. The pandemic reaches Malorie at the worst possible moment, and the hellish scene that ensues is more than a little reminiscent of the Sudden Departure from “The Leftovers”: chaos and confusion that almost feels biblical in its end-of-the-world scope. One woman bashes her head through a glass window with the force of a ram locking horns, while another throws herself in front of a bus to end her inexplicable agony.
That premise — that something is out there and must be avoided at all costs — is like “A Quiet Place” in reverse, and further evidence that denying your characters one of their senses makes for incredibly tense moments. Wondering as to the cause of this affliction is good fun, even as your thoughts are frequently interrupted by the many white-knuckle sequences where “Bird Box” most excels. Bier’s direction is coolly efficient, which fits the material to a t — anything more ostentatious would just feel wasteful.
The filmmaker, whose work on “In a Better World” and “The Night Manager” have earned her an Oscar and an Emmy, respectively, doesn’t have much of a background in genre cinema to speak of, but it’s hard not to wonder what else she could do with this kind of material. She lays out the film’s ideas a little too overtly — ignoring your problems doesn’t make them go away, in case you hadn’t noticed — but you may be too busy covering your own eyes in fear to notice or care.
Most of the film takes place five years before Malorie’s would-be pep talk, which is occasioned by her decision to move herself and the children downstream. There’s said to be a safe haven somewhere in the woods, as there always is in stories of this kind, and outside forces have made her current situation untenable; these scenes almost function as a kind of fragmentary epilogue, as learning how Malorie came to be here is no less compelling than watching her float down a river on a rowboat with her eyes covered.
The “creatures,” as they’re called, draw people like moths to a flame: Some appear to hear or see deceased loved ones in the moment before they kill themselves, while a select few manage to survive their encounter and devote themselves to forcing others to open their eyes and bask in its beauty. Removing your blindfold can only end one way, but “Bird Box” makes you want to look closer nonetheless.
“Bird Box” premiered at AFI FEST. Netflix will release it in theaters on December 13 before making it available to stream on December 21.