Netflix algorithm shatters records, but makes filmmakers lazy
The Santa Clara
January 17, 2019
With “Bird Box,” Netflix has claimed another victim. In fact, according to numbers released by the elusive streaming giant, the company’s apocalyptic movie has convinced over 45 million victims—I mean, subscribers—that its bingeable algorithms make decent movies.
Relying on mysterious and sophisticated data regarding the viewing habits of its subscribers, Netflix has a perfect formula for making binge-worthy productions: throw some reliable actors in a room (literally, in the case of “Bird Box”), add in a somewhat serviceable plot and let the project run its course.
As an unbelievably successful product of this assembly line formula, “Bird Box” unfortunately proves that filmmakers no longer need to do anything else.
The film opens cryptically, with a stern Sandra Bullock warning two children:
“Under no circumstance are you allowed to take off your blindfold.” Following her own advice, she leads the frightened, obedient children to a boat, and the trio head off into a dark and rushing river.
The action then cuts five years into the past, where a begrudgingly pregnant Malorie (Bullock) squabbles with her sister (Sarah Paulson) as they head to an ultrasound appointment. On the television in the background, news anchors warn of an epidemic of mass suicides in Europe and Russia.
By the time Malorie and her sister leave the doctor’s office, this faraway crisis has already spread to the United States.
Frantic people dart in front of speeding trucks and leap into scalding fires in a madcap game of suicidal one-upmanship. The streets of America are caught in a mass panic.
Alone, Malorie takes refuge in an upper-class home filled with cautiously friendly characters, including the scene-chewing John Malkovich and “Moonlight” star Trevante Rhodes. Rhodes in particular brings a life-affirming warmth to this film crowded with characters numbed by the self-destruction surrounding them.
The group astutely realizes that the suicidal urges transmit via eye contact (hence the blindfolds in the opening scene) and the rest of the film cuts back and forth between the family struggling to survive without sight and Malorie’s grueling and danger-filled river voyage with the two children.
Despite Netflix’s considerable spending power, the film suffers from the same problems plaguing most direct-to-video apocalyptic films: the budget can’t sustain the spectacle (especially after paying Bullock and her A-list costars). Cinematic apocalypses are rarely quiet affairs, yet the ragtag group of extras bent on uncreative self-annihilation in the early scenes make the disasters of the Syfy channel’s cheapest productions seem like big budget affairs.
To her credit, Bullock continuously applies pressure to the film’s self-inflicted wounds. Her resilient focus and natural urgency lend the film glimpses of excitement its bland, overlit filmmaking belies.
Director Susanne Bier abandons the moodiness of her previous work on “The Night Manager,” filming most scenes with the cinematic grammar of standard TV fare. Her camera serves mainly to capture the dialogue and action, missing opportunities to play with and explore the visually transmitted suicides that drive the plot with a creeping and explorative camera.
Contrast this film’s handling of mass suicide with that of M. Night Shyamalan’s wrongfully scorned “The Happening.” Unlike the repetitive deaths in “Bird Box,” the suicides in that film became increasingly perverse and disquieting. Shyamalan’s coiled camera creeps and lingers like a sentient jack-in-the-box, engrossing viewers despite the film’s oddball sense of humor.
As a result, the suicides become disturbingly entrancing spectacles. When John Leguizamo comes to terms with his immediately impending death, audiences feel more alive than they ever do during one of the many main character suicides in “Bird Box.”
But unlike Shyamalan’s experimental disaster film, “Bird Box” enjoys one of the largest movie audiences of the past year, bringing apocalypses to both the characters in its frames and the viewers at home, who will no doubt face an onslaught of similarly bland, uncinematic disasters in the near future.
You might want to get yourself one of those blindfolds.
Contact Brandon Schultz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.