When it comes to the movie “Jaws,” there’s a myth so often repeated that hardly anyone stops to question it anymore: The story goes that because Spielberg couldn’t get his giant mechanical shark to work, he was forced to shoot around it, resulting in a more effective film. That’s true up to a point. Sharks are scary, and the mere suggestion of one — coupled with the sight of a giant fin slicing through water, menacing POV shots, and the most menacing score ever written — is certainly more frightening than the sight of a malfunctioning rubber dummy. But there are countless examples, from Freddy Krueger to the clown from “It,” of horror-movie nightmares that are terrifying precisely because we do see them.
And then there’s “Bird Box,” a not-inexpensive Netflix thriller that pushes things to the other extreme, conjuring some kind of deadly phenomenon the vision of which causes people to lose their minds — a movie that has been (misleadingly) compared to “A Quiet Place,” only that film had real monsters, genuine suspense, and a much more intuitive set of rules for survival. In “Bird Box,” director Susanne Bier never shows the monster, only people’s reaction to it, which does something spooky to the viewer’s eyes, then mesmerizes them into committing suicide. One woman stares at it, whatever it is, and then steps out in front of a fast-moving bus. Another looks and then saunters over to a burning car, taking a seat in the inferno.
Such acts could reasonably be described as scary-ish, an adjective that applies to “Bird Box” in general. Here, as in M. Night Shyamalan’s far worse “The Happening,” is a movie that deals with two simultaneous fears at once. The first is a variation on the old free-will conundrum: the notion that our brains might find something so irresistible that we somehow couldn’t help ourselves, even though it almost certainly would kill us (in this case, looking at the malicious unseen force). The second is the opposite: Immediately after gazing upon it, we lose control and give in to the most frightening impulse ever, the one that protects us from taking our own lives.
At least, that’s what should be frightening about the “Bird Box” premise, which author Josh Malerman hatched in novel form, where readers’ imaginations were free to fill in that unseen terror as they saw fit — a device that he may as well have lifted from Stephen King’s “The Mist” or José Saramago’s “Blindness.” But there’s one crucial difference: In those two stories, it’s not what’s out there that ultimately intimidates, but the interpersonal dynamics among a volatile mix of well-drawn characters, that keeps audiences on edge. Had the equation held in “Bird Box,” we wouldn’t need a monster to scare us. Instead, Malerman and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (whose relatively sophisticated script for “Arrival” suggests he should have been able to crack this adaptation) have served up an inexplicably bland ensemble that even a talented cast can’t render interesting.
“Bird Box” opens with single mom Malorie (Sandra Bullock), who is first seen coaching the two 5-year-olds in her charge (Julian Edwards and Vivien Lyra Blair) on how to survive. Bullock sells this exhaustingly expository monologue as best she can, all but screaming, “Listen up, kids — and audiences — these are the rules!” Does she think these two tykes were born yesterday? Considering that both entered the world after the unseen/don’t-look plague broke out, chances are no lesson was repeated more often in Malorie’s home schooling than the one that commands them to wear their blindfolds at all times outdoors, to hide under thick blankets whenever possible, and to never, ever look directly at the entity. (Intermittent POV shots reveal that the blindfolds filter but don’t entirely obscure the characters’ field of vision, further confusing how the “Whatever you do, don’t look” strategy is supposed to work.)
As “Bird Box” unfolds, audiences can look forward to being force-fed many other guidelines, the most important being to avoid a second group of survivors. Turns out, the epidemic affects some people differently. Not everyone commits suicide; some carry on with their eyes open, acting more or less like evangelical zombies determined to convince others to witness the glorious entity that, curious as we may be, audiences never get to behold. The title refers to another rule, by which birds serve as a kind of alarm system when something is amiss — though it never explains what happened to all the other animals on Earth, and whether dogs, cats, or kangaroos might be just as effective.
In any case, Malorie rescues three bright blue budgies on a supply run to the nearest grocery store (the movie’s tensest set-piece, involving a short drive in a Jeep with blacked-out windows, steering through corpse-littered streets with only the vehicle’s GPS and proximity sensors as guide), keeping the birds alive for half a decade so that she may pack them and her two child companions into a rowboat for a two-day river escape. Why five years when the movie has no intention of showing how society might unravel during that time? Well, that’s as long as “Bird Box” needs for its two infants to reach an age where Malorie will be forced to decide which of them she’s willing to sacrifice in a risible whitewater rapids scene.
As Malorie’s river escape pokily advances, “Bird Box” flashes back to the day the epidemic broke out, as she and eight other survivors crowd into a house owned by the surly and distrustful Douglas (John Malkovich, deliciously loathsome until the last minute). There’s a big argument when the very-pregnant Malorie and two others (Rosa Salazar and “Moonlight” star Trevante Rhodes) take cover under Douglas’ roof, which is strange, since a moment later, there are 10 people gathered in his kitchen (ranging from Oscar winner Jacki Weaver to surely-cast-by-algorithm Machine Gun Kelly).
Unfortunately, omitting any explanation of how they got there is pretty consistent with the film’s recurring strategy of not showing audiences what they most expect to see. Later, two of these characters disappear off-camera, making room for two late arrivals (“Patti Cake$” star Danielle Macdonald and the always squirrelly Tom Hollander). Such a cast ought to make these characters compelling, although some are so one-dimensionally irksome (Lil Rel Howery), it’s a relief to see them go — even if there’s not much Bier can do to scare us with the cloud of swirling leaves and whispery temptation that passes for whatever’s killing them.
The Danish director, one of the few contemporary helmers who’s been able to play real-world melodrama as life-and-death horror (as she did so brilliantly in “Brothers” and “After the Wedding”), has yet to achieve the same trick in English. Heisserer’s script endeavors to give Bullock a rich psychological backstory — something to do with her reluctance to accept motherhood and the redemption she experiences in accepting that role — and the wonderfully self-reliant actress plays the arc earnestly enough. But there’s no getting around that this is a monster movie without a monster. Netflix, which plans a limited theatrical run on Dec. 13 before streaming “Bird Box” for its members two weeks later, should be able to lure a fair number of eyeballs via the cast alone. Just be warned: In this case, what you see is what you get.