I'm late to the Bird Box party. An overwhelming combination of work, holiday prep, and family obligations kept me from my Netflix queue for longer than usual, so it wasn't until a flight home this past week that I was finally able to enjoy the film everyone around me had been obsessing over. Twenty minutes in, I finally got the jokes I'd seen on Facebook and Twitter over the last couple of weeks and found myself really starting to enjoy the story being told.
Suddenly, we meet Gary. This introduction is supposed to add a new wrinkle to the story, a new reason to be terrified of everything at all times. Instead, it leaves me with a dozen questions that never get answered by the story. And worse, it highlights a huge problem I have with the way so many stories we see today fail to address the blurry lines between traditional good and evil.
The corrupted humans of Bird Box aren't given a lot of definition on purpose, because generic scary is the point.
Spoiler alert: Gary's motivations are far from pure. He's introduced as an innocent, someone who escaped a group attack and managed to wander into this neighborhood desperate for shelter from the madness outside. He briefly mentions people who escaped a local asylum that seem unaffected by the suicidal urges everyone else is overwhelmed by when they see these mysterious creatures. There's no explanation for how or why this happens, just that crazy people aren't affected. A few minutes later, we learn that crazy people are actually affected — but instead of killing themselves they feel the overwhelming urge to "help" by removing blindfolds and force everyone to see the monsters. Gary is eventually dealt with, but throughout the rest of the movie we come across his kind over and over again.
These people confuse me. Are they all the same kind of crazy, or are the monsters choosing people they think will serve them? It seems like the monsters and these crazy people can communicate with one another, but these scenes are short and the focus is more fight or flight than exposition. If they can communicate with one another, how is the place Malorie reaches at the end of the movie actually safe? It's full of children and blind people, who aren't likely to stand a chance against this coordinated group of grown adults with weapons. Speaking of children, if the effect of seeing a monster impacts all generic crazy people the same way, are there kids with messed up eyes roaming around attacking people as well? We never really see that, but it seems likely given how seemingly large this group of people are.
The corrupted humans of Bird Box aren't given a lot of definition on purpose, because generic scary is the point. The writing is clearly meant to tap into the residual fear that anyone is capable of evil and violence, it's fuel for how isolationist and inhuman Malorie becomes in an attempt to survive. Trust no one, feel nothing, and stay the course no matter what. And it works, by the time we reach the climax she's barely able to function as a human being. But in doing so, Bird Box misses a huge opportunity to make the human assistants to the monsters genuinely scary, and accidentally stumbles on a larger cultural issue in storytelling today.
It's easy to hand-wave away people with extreme views as somehow evil or corrupted in a movie, but that poorly imitates the way we handle these situations in real life.
Have you ever come across someone who thinks Thanos was right, and if we randomly purge half of humanity Earth as a whole really would be better off? How about Black Panther fans who think N'Jadaka (Erik Killmonger) was right, and that attacking the colonizers as retribution for avarice and slavery was the right move? They exist, and not as a small group, either. It's easy to find them in forums or on Twitter, talking about how these people who were very clearly villains had a point worth contemplating further. Most people can look at these stories and agree, even though we're empathetic toward these people, the whole murder thing is generally frowned upon and there are better ways to solve problems.
In a Bird Box world, the "Thanos has a point" people are the ones with the messed-up eyes, attacking everyone else to "help" them see, and that's where it all falls apart for me. Replace fantasy like Thanos with people who think we should be turning away or violently discouraging those who ask for asylum in our country when fleeing genocide in theirs, and suddenly it's a lot more real. It's easy to hand-wave away people with extreme views as somehow evil or corrupted in a movie, but that poorly imitates the way we handle these situations in real life. Because in the real world, there would be people who demand other take off their blindfolds. It wouldn't have anything to do with corruption or evil, but a different form of survival. For me, a story like that becomes an entirely different layer of dark and disturbing.
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