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On paper, Bird Box makes a lot of sense. Given its credentials, its not hard to figure out why a movie star as A-list and choosy as Sandra Bullock would sign on for the film, which drops on Netflix December 21. The post-apocalyptic novel on which its based was well received; its screenwriter wrote Arrival; and its director is Susanne Bier, an Oscar-winning filmmaker whose most recent job was the glossy small-screen success The Night Manager. And there are the storys heavy and relevant themes, particularly centered on how a parent can have any hope for their childs life when all that surrounds them is inevitable—or present—doom.

Its a pedigreed, interesting project, one that gives Bullock a chance to put a toe in the streaming world, as so many of her movie-star contemporaries have of late. To make it worth Bullocks while, Bier surrounds her with a supporting cast worthy of her profile: John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Jacki Weaver, and a quietly dashing Trevante Rhodes, among others. All is in place for a well-tailored thriller with a dark emotional heart, a prestige-y kind of genre picture to act as counter-programming to all the cloy of the holiday season.

That all sounds great, in theory. Which is why its such a disappointment that Bird Box is, in execution, so flimsy. The movie looks cheap; theres a drab flatness to Biers filming that screams TV movie, even when the story travels outside of its economical one-house set. Eric Heisserers script is clunky and off-tone often enough to remind you that, in addition to adapting Arrival, he also wrote Final Destination 5. (No knock on that film, really, but its not exactly premium material.) And that fabulous ensemble working alongside Bullock? Theyre hammy and ineffectual, giving broad B-movie performances in what is supposed to be serious fare.

From almost the outset, Bullock is stuck in the shallows. Which is a shame, because she gives a bracingly good performance. She plays Malorie, an expectant, and maybe a little reluctant, mother whose life of studio art and playful banter with her sister (Paulson) is hideously interrupted by a sudden plague of violent suicide. Around the world, people are just up and killing themselves, often at great risk to others. These poor souls seem to be seeing something that fills them with immediate, dreadful despair.

The story takes place in two timelines, one when Malorie is first fleeing the crisis, the other five years later—when she is alone save for two small children, whom she must harrowingly ferry down a rushing river in a small rowboat with a box of birds as cargo. Both narratives give Bullock plenty of opportunity to be haunted and intense, speaking to the children in a tough, fatal timbre only barely masking the ardency of her care and worry. The actress is most famous for her sideways effervescence, her easy wit. So its fascinating to see her harden her bearing so convincingly; even in Gravity, she was not as rattled and traumatized as this.

Bullock is so good, though, that her performance puts the rest of the thing in even junkier relief. Those familiar with the troubled oeuvre of M. Night Shyamalan may have noticed the similarities between this movies premise and that of The Happening, the howliest of Shyamalans several howlers. People spontaneously offed themselves in that one too, only there it was angry plants getting revenge for climate change. Here its something murkier, aliens or demons or who knows. It doesnt much matter who or what they are, because we never see them, nor do we get any resolution about their motives or purpose.

Like this years smash-hit creature feature A Quiet Place, Biers film tries for a sensory trick. If Malorie and the rest cant see the evil creatures, they cant be affected by their magic or E.S.P. or whatever—so they spend a lot of the movie wearing blindfolds, fumbling their way through various hellscapes in search of sustenance and safety. It doesnt work as well as A Quiet Places fraught silence did. That device allowed the film to play with form—a reversion back to the silent era out of stark, life-or-death necessity. Bird Boxs visual conceit would only really play daringly if a lot of the movie were staged in complete blackness—which no studio, not even Netflix, would have likely signed off on.

Not helping matters any is the films discomfitingly nasty take on people suffering from mental-health disorders, framing them as mad villains in jarringly retrograde fashion. Also not helping is Bird Boxs curious tendency toward humor, with Malkovich saucing it up lamely and Lil Rel Howery—so funny and cathartic in Get Out—forced into rote stereotype. All these survivors are scared, but theyre also silly and petty in a way that doesnt feel true to the circumstances. Yes, people contain multitudes, but I would think that a world-ending horror would maybe pare away, or at least shade, some of their stock-character stiffness. Bird Box doesnt think so, and badly offsets Bullocks focused rigor with the goofiness of its under-developed side characters. (Only Rhodes works fluidly with Bullock—please someone pair them together again, only in something better.)

All that said, given that its on Netflix and wont cost subscribers any more than theyve already paid for the service, I cant really say that Bird Box isnt worth a look. The movie occasionally musters up some scares, and a few of the deaths are satisfyingly gnarly, for those who are into that kind of gruesome thing. And, of course, theres Bullock, doing something good and interesting. Though it does ultimately prove frustrating and sad, watching her so desperately grasp for a finer film—one that lies just beyond what Bird Box allows us to see.

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Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Richard LawsonRichard Lawson is the chief critic for Vanity Fair, reviewing film, television, and theatre. He lives in New York City.

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