Netflix said that a third of its global subscriber base watched their original horror movie Bird Box in the first week it dropped. Whether or not 45 million watched the film has come under some scrutiny, but such criticism misses the point. Why was Bird Box so incredibly popular? Sure, it was advertised and promoted on Netflix and online, but not with nearly the budgets of most Hollywood releases. So why did this modern horror film starring Sandra Bullock as a character struggling to survive a mysterious global apocalypse alongside her two children become the water cooler show of 2019 already? Here are five reasons it worked oh-so-well, and as you might have surmised, the following will contain multiple spoilers.
For starters, one of the reasons Bird Box was so successful was that it wasn’t promoted as a straight-up horror film, but rather as a sci-fi thriller. Even though horror is as sure-thing as any genre can be at the Cineplex, it still can be polarizing, particularly with female audiences, and on the smaller screen. By selling the film as more of a thriller, something in The Twilight Zone style of science fiction, the film was allowed to reach a broader audience. It pulled in those who loved horror, true, but it also grabbed those who might’ve been more resistant to something they’d fear would have too much blood and guts in it. Sometimes, it’s all in how you pitch your idea. Selling a horror film as a broader appealing story seems to have done the trick and kept Bird Box from appearing polarizing.
On the smaller screen, horror is often an iffy proposition at best, anyway. Few horror-themed shows stick to the wall in primetime, perhaps having something to do with the inability to sustain scares with so much commercial interruption. Even such a successful platform as Netflix has struggled with the genre. For every monster success like Stranger Things or The Haunting of Hill House, they’ve had oodles of far lesser successes. (Hemlock Grove, anyone?) Granted, Bird Box was a movie and not a TV series, but Netflix has made many original horror movies that haven’t broken through any better than some of their expensive, long-form series. This one did and selling it as something other than a scary movie certainly helped its appeal.
The previews and promotions for Bird Box also mined the mystery. They created all kinds of interest in finding out why Sandra Bullock was stumbling about in broad daylight, wearing a blindfold, and rowing a boat. Being so coy, even vague, urged viewers to tune in and ascertain just what the hell was going on here. It wisely took its time within the movie too. The way it didn’t spoon feed everything to the audience kept it unknown and all the more disturbing. Even why the film was named Bird Box remained a rich query until almost the very end.
The second thing that made Bird Box so successful was how incredibly relatable it all was. The horrifying image of Bullock in her blindfold, lugging two small children around, even rowing a boat in her get-up looked scary and weird and desperate. It also plays on our fears of being lost in the dark, be it a room or when we close our eyes.
Screenwriters attempting to write a horror script are often advised to write that which scares them. Well, who isn’t terrified of being blinded? What Eric Heisserer wrote in Bird Box is so eminently relatable, it’s palpable. Being afraid of the dark has been a primal fear for most of us since childhood, and Bird Box wisely played on such universal fears. Now add on the main character’s responsibility for taking care of children under such duress, and you have a set-up that is excruciating in its cruelty. How will any of them survive? How would we? It is extraordinarily empathetical.
Thirdly, the film toyed in how much information is shared with us, from what the entity was, to just exactly was the sanctuary that Bullock et al. were pursuing. Bird Box didn’t easily give up such answers, and that kept us thinking. It was a thriller that required intellectual rigor as well as emotional involvement. The script played us the whole time, being intelligent or even cruel at times in its revelations, and we loved it for it!
Fourth, the filmmakers wisely chose not to show the villain behind all the mayhem. Was it an alien, some sort of metaphysical entity, the devil, God?…we never found out, and that made things all the more terrifying because we never found out entirely, even at the very end. The filmmakers realized that less is always more in such matters. Ask Steven Spielberg about the shark in Jaws or Ridley Scott about the predator in Alien – they’ll tell you.
The fifth and final reason that Bird Box was so affecting concerns the hardest thing for any thriller or horror film to do, and that is to be able to remain terrifying from moment to moment. The easiest way to keep us on the edge of our seats is by being unpredictable, and Bird Box did just that. The prominent inclusion of Sarah Paulson in the trailer led viewers to think she was going to play a vital role. Instead, she got offed in the first 15 minutes. As survivors gathered, some lasted, while others bit the dust within minutes. Tom Hollander shows up an hour into the film, and we never found out who he is, why he’s there, and how he can so blithely lead others to their deaths. Travante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Lil’ Red Howery, and Jacki Weaver may be stars, but here, that didn’t guarantee they’d last very long. It’s terrifying because it’s so unpredictable, and the entire film played havoc with time, characters, and survival.
By telling the story in extensive flashbacks, often a no-no according to those who teach screenwriting, helped Bird Box immensely as it made us wonder how Bullock and those two kids escaped the city and got into the woods. Little was crystal clear, but all of the situations put viewers through the wringer. We were just as discombobulated as everyone in the story was, never knowing what was coming next, whether a new interloper would be a friend or foe, and just how quickly death would come for any character.
Still, as terrific as so much of Bird Box was, it was far from perfect. It was too long, some of its effects looked cheesy, and Bullock played it all a bit too icy. It also felt too close in themes and style to the superior cinematic release of A Quiet Place last year. Still, Bird Box was one incredibly exciting rollercoaster ride, not to mention a searing dissertation on how quickly society can slip into factions, selfishness, and brutality. (Again, very Twilight Zone in such ways.)
All in all, Bird Box might have even been helped by its timing. It was a perfect antidote to the sugar hangover from the holidays, as well as all the Oscar bait fighting for our attention at the Cineplex in January. This movie was a brilliant distraction, mean and blunt, an ideal way to jolt us all out of our Christmas break complacency. Will Netflix order a sequel? With those kinds of ratings, highly likely. Knowing that such attempts to capture lightning in a bottle seldom stick. Perhaps it’s best for everyone to close their eyes and refuse to watch such a thing.
View the trailer of Bird Box below: