Have you watched the new Netflix movie Bird Box starring Sandra Bullock yet? It’s been divisive, with some people saying they love it and other people claiming that they hate it. But I absolutely loved it, and I have a theory about one of the most difficult questions of the entire movie: What are the monsters, exactly?
First, this is your chance to abandon this article if you haven’t seen the movie yet. I loved it and it reminded me of some fantastic 1990s limited TV-series adaptations from Stephen King like The Stand and The Langoliers. And if you want to see it with unspoiled eyes, go ahead and do that now.
Again, this is your last chance to abandon this article, because there are major spoilers ahead. Last chance...
Okay. Are the spoiler-phobics gone? Let’s get started.
The monsters of Bird Box are social media. Seriously.
Think of Bird Box as a new entry into the old-fashioned 1950s monster movie genre, but instead of the midcentury fears about the Cold War, nuclear weapons, and communism we’re exploring the New Cold War and fears of what social media is doing to our brains. By putting on the blindfolds, the characters of Bird Box are protected from the monsters, which are actually the influences of social media.
Films like The Thing From Another World (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (both the 1956 and 1978 versions), The Blob (1958), The Day of the Triffids (1962), and Them! (1954), are ostensibly monster movies – but they’re actually about the fear of communists infiltrating America, even though the movies don’t talk about the Soviet Union explicitly. The monsters of those old movies were stand-ins, just as the unseen monsters of Bird Box are stand-ins for one of our greatest fears today, the poisonous influence of social media.
I know you might be thinking that I’m only seeing what I want to see in the movie – that the monsters are just a thing that I’m forced to think about every single day, since I write for a technology site. And you might be right! But I sincerely think there’s a strong case to be made that the film’s unseen monsters represent the dangers of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Social media is a form of suicide, the movie warns, as we slowly kill ourselves with one of humanity’s worst inventions. And it’s an invention that’s been exploited by adversary nations like Russia, China, and North Korea.
Time for me to put up or shut up, right? Let’s start with the themes that Sandra Bullock’s character Malorie is exploring through her art. When Malorie’s sister Jessica, played by Sarah Paulson, asks about the painting in her studio, we get to hear what Malorie believes she’s creating through her Last Supper-style tableau.
“I think I see a whole bunch of people sitting together, but they all feel incredibly lonely,” Jessica says.
“The loneliness is just incidental,” Malorie says. “It’s really about people’s inability to connect.”
Most of these people look like they could be staring at a phone or computer. And that’s no accident, of course.
Next we have the place where the monsters first appear on the globe. Some news reports say it’s Romania, while others say the monsters first appear in Russia. And that confusion is part of our modern narrative about “fake news” in the real world. Russian troll factories are churning out content to divide Americans, if U.S. intelligence agencies can be believed.
“Well, it’s in Russia, so...” Malorie says before muting the TV.
“Dangerous” social media created by the Russian government is at our shores, according to the movie. There’s even a graphic that appears on Malorie’s TV that makes the jump from Russia to America pretty literal. Better watch out. It’s coming here.
There’s also the seemingly innocent line delivered by a different TV news anchor after most of the characters are in the first house.
“Do not go outside, avoid social media...” the anchor says before the transmission cuts out entirely. Again, that’s a pretty explicit clue that the thing you’re supposed to fear in this film is social media.
And soon we see another very literal illustration of social media and computers as the threat. When B.D. Wong’s character Greg comes up with the idea to watch the mysterious monsters through the house’s security camera feed, we’re teased with the possibility that there’s a way to watch the monsters without dying. This, of course, ends in disaster.
Greg explains that it’s probably safe to watch the monsters through a computer screen because he’s just going to be watching “pixels and heat.” But if you’ve seen the movie you know how this works out. We get a terrifying shot of Greg watching the screen in horror. The monsters are somehow just in the wind, as we can see on the screen for ourselves. And despite being tied to the chair, Greg manages to kill himself by rocking violently and plunging his head on a nearby corner.
The rest of the survivors hear the commotion upstairs and burst into the room in an effort to save Greg. It really doesn’t get more on-the-nose than John Malkovich’s character Douglas stomping on a computer screen, if you’re looking for very literal hints about where the danger in Bird Box may lie.
It’s in the computers! Kill it! Kill it dead!
Admittedly, at one point while I was watching the movie I thought that maybe the monsters represented Trumpism. But the big strike against that theory is that we seem to have a Trump supporter in the mix. John Malkovich’s character Douglas is a good, old-fashioned asshole – precisely the kind of asshole that Trumpists might identify with. And the screenwriter makes the connection explicit once they get to the grocery store.
“I would like to take this opportunity to make a toast to all of us. Because all of us, collectively, are making the end of the world...” Douglas says in a huge build up. “...great again!”
Yep, he’s a Trump guy. So if the evil monsters represent Trump then Douglas wouldn’t be fighting them, he’d be embracing them. And while Douglas may be both a selfish asshole and a Trump supporter, he is a redeemable human being. You might even call him a hero, given his sacrifice.
So where does all of this leave the humans who are not only impervious to the monsters, but want everyone else to open their eyes and see them? These, of course, are the online trolls.
The psychopathic villain Gary, played fantastically by Tom Hollander, tells lies to get inside the house. He doesn’t arouse the suspicion of the birds because he’s just another human. But he’s evil, and just wants to spread pain. And once inside, Gary is revelling in the misery that he’s causing by literally forcing people to see things they don’t want to see.
The ultimate troll.
And last but not least, the monster seems to be able to emulate the sound of our loved ones. Douglas’s wife thinks that she sees her mother who’s been dead for 10 years, while Malorie hears the voice of her loving partner Tom, played by Trevante Rhodes, after he’s long dead.
This is fundamentally what social media aspires to do, at least on paper. Facebook says it’s all about making connections. It’s whispering to you with little notifications that you’re sure must be people who actually love you. But that’s not really them. It’s their ghost in the machine.
What about the other symbolism scattered throughout the film? Could Bird Box be about racism, as Michael Harriot theorised yesterday on The Root? Probably! But I’d float the possibility that racism is just one of the many threats that exists on social media. There are also sub-plots on motherhood, nature, and even alcohol. You’ll notice that Malorie discusses drinking wine while getting an ultrasound and then has a whiskey with Greg, who reminds her of her father. One reference is a throwaway, but talking about drinking while pregnant twice probably means something more to the screenwriter.
And that’s why I believe the monsters are more appropriately stand-ins for all of social media. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are incubators of the worst aspects of humanity’s existence (and our treatment of each other) in the 21st century.
Again, I could be wrong, and the monsters could be something else entirely. But that’s what great genre art does – it challenges us to think about our hopes and fears outside of a literal context. Bird Box is a good movie, even if you only watch it literally. But the movie prepares you from the beginning to look deeper, like with Malorie’s art. We’re poisoning ourselves, looking for connections that are ultimately artificial. And often times it just makes us more lonely.
“The loneliness is just incidental,” Malorie said. “It’s really about people’s inability to connect.”