Susanne Bier’s latest film is based on Josh Malerman’s 2014 novel of the same name, and follows the development of a mysterious event as it decimates the population of Europe, Russia and then the rest of the world. We experience this event through the eyes of Malorie (Sandra Bullock), a woman living in Sacramento, who manages to survive longer than most other people. It’s not clear where this event comes from, or what its end point might be, nor whether it is organic or inorganic in nature. What is clear is that it seems capable of moving from place to place very rapidly, and branching off into numerous sub-events. More importantly, perhaps, it causes anyone who looks at it to commit suicide, although the mechanism of how this occurs is never explained, beyond the fact that it appears to present itself, to each person, as their worst fear – a fear so great that they would rather die than see it visualised. Only the audience can see the event when it descends on its victims, and yet it doesn’t appear to have any discernible appearance of its own, arriving like a peculiarly strong gust of wind that scatters leaves in its wake, and occasionally breathes inchoate sounds that induce people to look at it, but without any intrinsic or evident visual features.
In order to survive this event, it’s therefore necessary to do anything to avoid looking at it, and to avoid looking at anything in an uncontrolled way, since it’s impossible to tell when the event will manifest itself in any one place. Luckily, the event can’t make its way across physical thresholds, as much as it might rattle and shake them, meaning that Malorie only ends up surviving because she gets into a house with a collection of other people who manage to seal up the windows in time, shutting themselves off from any visual contact with the outside world. A powerful chamber drama now builds, in which this collection of survivors have to think of a way to deal with their dwindling supplies, and the prospect of communication with the outside world, without allowing themselves to directly see anything that is happening beyond their four walls. With a cast that includes John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes and Jacki Weaver, this would already be a suspenseful survival drama in itself, but Bier also cuts between these early days of the event and five years later, where Malorie and two children, simply named Boy and Girl, are trying to navigate, blindfold, down a long river, to a survivors colony they have heard about. At first, it’s not clear what has happened to the other people in the house, or the house itself. Nor is it clear who these two children are, since while we learn early on that Malorie is pregnant, a scene with her sister (Sarah Paulson) at a hospital makes it clear she’s not expecting to have twins.
Between these two timelines, Bier turns the event into the main focus of the film, and while its origins may be unclear, its impact is like that of a meta-terrorist event – a spectacle so powerful that it induces regular citizens to destroy themselves in the manner more typical of terrorist action. In a kind of logical conclusion of terrorist spectacle, merely seeing this event is enough to perpetuate it, in what often feels like an induced and self-sustaining terrorist attack rather than a biological or extraterrestrial entity. In an even more extreme version of terrorist spectacle, the event here is devoid of any intrinsic image, instead acting directly upon the optic nerve to shape itself into the most unimaginable spectacle for any one person, as if to take the debilitation at the hands of an overwhelming spectacle that is so integral to contemporary terrorism, and turn it into the goal of terrorism itself. In this vision of terrorism, the ultimate agenda is spectacle, and the ultimate goal is to insist on a spectacle sufficient to debilitate politics as we know it, with the result that the survivors never even think to question who or what is behind the event, but instead devote all of their time to calibrating precisely how much of their visual field the event needs to operate.
Not surprisingly, it turns out that the event works even more effectively when it is remediated in real time, meaning that real-time footage of the event causes an even more plosive suicidal impact than simply seeing it in person. Like terrorist spectacle, this event grows even more powerful with each new platform that it inhabits, meaning that the survivors quickly give up all hope of encountering it directly, whether in person, or behind a screen. Instead, they only leave the house blindfold, relying on touch and sound to hear their way, as they try to figure out how to relearn their world without sight. The resulting scenes have been compared to Fernando Mereilles’ film Blindness, an adaptation of Jose Saramago’s novel, but unlike Blindness, the audience can see everything here, with the world actually seeming to become even crisper and more high-def when it is reserved for our eyes only. For much of the film, we’re seeing what the other characters can only feel, smell, taste and hear, providing us with an oversaturated visual field that quickly comes to feel continuous with the lush, high-def look of Netflix itself, which is where the film has been released. Like recent horror films such as Don’t Breathe, A Quiet Place and Lights Out, the visual field is here displaced into a more synaesthetic sensory whole, often at precisely those moments at which the film’s images reach their crispest and most striking resolutions.
In the process, Bird Box plays as a reflection on the Netflix film as much as an apocalyptic drama – or, rather, frames Netflix as a kind of cinematic apocalypse, both consummating and exhausting cinema as a visual medium, and cinema as a placeholder for the idea of visual media itself. On the one hand, Netflix is more intensely visual than any other platform in the history of cinema, offering up a series of hi-def experiences that are so perfect and reticulated that they seem to have reached the very apotheosis of what a visual medium can afford. On the other hand, however, this perfection of the visual brings with it a kind of sensory deprivation, a sense that the other senses have been consciously subordinated to visuality in the manner of classical Hollywood cinema. This sense of subordination is all the more dramatic in that the hi-def precision of Netflix is so drastic that it feels tactile, and draws upon the haptic proximity of the mobile devices where it is typically watched, with one release after another offering resolutions so fractallated that they cry out to be touched, or for some kind of kinaesthetic communion. What Netflix offers is not so much visuality per se but a kind of idealized and hypothesized visual field that instead clarifies the extent to which the very conditions that produced Netflix have ushered us into a post-visual society, one in which the proliferation of haptic media has turned Netflix’s own hyper-visual orientation into something of a contrivance, even or especially as it facilitates this as well.
In Bird Box, the event thus plays like the incursion of Netflix into a cinematic world, particularly in the part of the film that takes place in the present. Although this ostensibly follows the narrative trajectory of Malorie and the two children making their way down the river to the survivors’ settlement, it effectively plays as a series of Netflix-tableau, and a study in Netflix-syntax – the kinds of images and vistas that have proven most amenable to its particular aesthetic orientation. You could almost say that these short scenes are like “watching” Netflix, as they unfold against a series of landscapes that any Netflix user will recognise as the favoured backdrops of Netflix cinema – lush woods marked by watercourses, seen from the air. Allowing the camera to alternate between drone panoramas and granular textures, these heavily wooded landscape have become more integral to Netflix than any other, and have effectively become the Netflix house style, a synecdoche for the platform itself. By traversing this landscape blindfold, Malorie enacts the extent to which Netflix is ultimately a post-visual medium, or a synaesthetic medium, suffused with an awareness of visuality as an experience that has been exceeded, but that through being exceeded has taken on a new kind of intensity as well. It’s a brilliant twist, then, that the people who are guiding Malorie through this landscape, on walkie talkie, turn out to be blind, since it removes even the fantasy or hypothesis of a guiding visual presence. That, in turn, removes the audience from any real sense of visual omniscience, and instead sets them adrift in an strange space that seems to demand their visual attention and fascination, but to also render their eyes oddly redundant and irrelevant at the same time.
The desperation of terrorism to craft a visual spectacle capable of debilitating politics, and the post-visual ambivalences of Netflix, therefore turn out to be part of the same media situation. Within that matrix, the only people who are permitted to continue seeing after the event are those who already harbour terrorist impulses themselves – cursorily referred to by one of the survivors as “the criminally insane,” but more generally presented as sharing a certain intensity that turns them into zealots, ideologues and prophets of the event as it destroys those around them. Not only are these people able to look at the event and remain unscathed, but they force other people’s eyes open as well, insisting that “everyone needs to see” the event, thereby showing their own deference to the event by exposing as many people to it as possible. Whereas the event only distorts the pupils of regular people in the moments before suicide, these immune survivors have permanently distorted pupils, but are still able to see, perpetually poising them at the moment just before a suicide attack – the moment when the anticipation of spectacle is most dramatic.
By the end of the film, these immune survivors have become more dangerous than the event itself – or, rather, they have become the event itself, taking it into those few remaining pockets where people have managed to survive by sequestering their sight from the world at large. It’s no surprise that the immune survivors take a special pleasure in offering up children, and even babies, to the event, since they see their mission as one of indoctrination, rather than destruction, inculcating their “victims” into the glory of the event rather than leading them to their deaths. It’s through these characters, and at quite a late stage in the film, that Bier suggests that the event isn’t merely horrific, and doesn’t merely engender suicide by presenting its victims with images of terror. Instead, the event is rapturous, driven by a hypnotic and sublime combination of horror and beauty, just as terrorist spectacle is never about just instilling fear, but paying visual tribute to the grandeur of the terrorist agenda at the same time. In one of the most chilling scenes, an immune survivor apologises after shooting Tom (Trevante Rhodes), one of the last regular survivors, telling him “I’m sorry that you didn’t get to see it…it is beautiful, so beautiful, it’ll cleanse the world.” At these moments, the immune survivors are almost like terrorists who have committed suicide in the name of the cause and achieved their reward – the world, as everyone else knows it, is their afterlife, and they try to recruit as many people as they can.
That juncture between Netflix spectacle and terrorist spectacle climaxes in the last sequence in the film, which follows Malorie, Boy and Girl as they run through the last stretch of forest before arriving at the blind shelter. Since the event and Netflix are effectively synonymous by this latepoint, it makes sense that the event also intensifies in this most quintessential of Netflix spaces, finally appearing to achieve some kind of manual agency at the very moment at which the light, foliage and sky crystallises and abstracts into a hi-def whole. Yet this is also the very moment at which the thres survivors arrive at the blind shelter, meaning that the Netflix-event is finally forced to come up against the prospect of a post-visual space, one whose bright tones and conspicuous CGI effects cut abruptly and abrasively against the Netflix naturalism of the forest scenes. In these final moments, sight itself becomes uncanny, as Bier evokes something about the visual field that is no longer part of this world, and no longer part of our world – something that she can only, paradoxically, evoke by way of one of the most meticulously visual platforms in the world today; an appropriate ending to an apocalyptic drama that is both fixated on the medial destruction that Netflix has wrought, but also the medial transfiguration it has made.