The following review spoils the movie, but not any more than the movie's first ten minutes have already done on their own. Still, tread carefully.

A world-wide epidemic of suicides, a monster that manifests as ominous blowing wind - of all the fucking movies to take as a primary influence, why would anybody with a quarter of a brain pick M. Night Shyamalan's legendarily awful 2008 film The Happening? And yet that is somehow just what Josh Halerman did in writing his 2014 novel Bird Box, which has now been turned into a movie by screenwriter Eric Heisserer and director Susanne Bier. The film proves one last time at the tail end of 2018 that Netflix's track record for producing genre thrillers really is just impossibly bad, and while this has somehow managed to set records as the service's most-watched original feature, I categorically refuse to believe it's because that many people actually thought it was good.

That being said, the film has a grabby, promising opening: a woman named Malorie (Sandra Bullock) barks at two nameless children, a girl (Vivian Lyra Blair) and a boy (Julian Edwards), giving them orders about the dangerous, rocky, long boat journey they're about to take, and reminding them with fury bleeding into panic that they must never remove their blindfolds, or they shall die. It's an obvious sort of opening gambit, starting in media res and giving us just what we need to go on - the blindfold thing, mostly - and giving Bullock a bit meaty monologue to scream at the baffled kids. But it works, obvious or not, plunging us right into a mystery that's also a frenzied struggle for survival.

Best scene in the movie, that opening. Also, unfortunately, the scene that ruins the movie. Because the next thing that happens is a flashback to five years earlier, when Malorie and her sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) are headed to Malorie's doctor (Parminda Nagra) for Malorie's latest pregnancy check-up. We learn in pretty short order that she's immensely hostile to the notion of having a child, and a local news report mentions the inexplicable suicide plague crawling across the globe. Minutes later, whatever town this is finds itself covered in a freak windstorm as people start going glassy-eyed, babbling some kind of weird awestruck nonsense, and killing themselves. Jessica is one of these, but whatever it is spares Malorie long enough to scramble to a house where a band of survivors sort of led by the extremely suspicious and angry Douglas (John Malkovich). There are quite a decent number of people here already, and they figures, in breathless gulps of exposition, that there's some kind of entities that have appeared, entities so unfathomable or evil or both that merely seeing them drives a human being mad enough to commit suicide or become a babbling cultist. They cannot, for whatever reason, enter buildings, so as long as our party remains in the house, they will be fine. Cue the latest variation on the "survivors in a house make things worse by sniping at each other" plot of The Birds/Night of the Living Dead, the former of which is an especially easy comparison to make, what with the title being Bird Box and all.

So, we're ready to start the plot, and here's what we already know: every one of these people will die over the course of the next five years, leaving Malorie, her child, and the child of a yet-unmet-but-already-dead fellow survivor to get into that boat in order to escape. By the time this happens, Malorie's dormant mothering instinct will not yet have awakened, and this will presumably be catalysed by the dangers on the river.

This wouldn't be a problem if Bird Box was mostly about the river journey, and the flashbacks merely helped drop in exposition every now and then. In fact, many things wouldn't be a problem if that were the case, such as the way that the blindfolded river trip is actually tense and interesting, whereas the characters in the safe house are all one-note stock types dripped into a scenario that has been a lazy crutch for horror and thriller storytellers for a half of a century now. But instead, the flashbacks are solidly a half of the film's unnecessarily long running time, if not more, and there's literally no reason to watch. Oh, we get the spectacle of very good actors (Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver) trying to find some personality in their thready characters, that's always good for some rubbernecking. But mostly, it's just a protracted body count watch, and with such an amply-packed ensemble (eight survivors besides Malorie at the start, with two joining them later on), it takes a good long while for the counter to tick down to zero and the inevitable moment when we return to the opening scene.

Meanwhile, this is cross-cut with the present - or the future, or whatever - as Malorie and Girl and Boy survive one obstacle after the next. This part, at least, is pretty solid: Bier is a natural-born director of intimate character dramas, not thrillers, but she's able to bring some of those skills to making an unusually intimate tale of survival. Undoubtedly, Bird Box never solves the central problem, or even notices it, that this is a movie about a thing that must not be seen, and characters who most not ever look at anything, and film is a visual medium. We always have far more information than Malorie ever gets, which makes it next to impossible to really identify with her; this seems like a crystal-clear example of a book that simply could not survive being translated into imagery. Contrast it with 2018's other survival-by-reducing-your-senses thriller, A Quiet Place (and oh, dear Lord, is it ever hard not to contrast this with A Quiet Place; on top of everything, the fact that both films hinge on pregnant women and the holy sacred power of the Mothering Instinct is really just weird, especially given that it defies belief that Malorie wouldn't have gotten an abortion minutes after learning she was pregnant), in which the minimalist soundtrack ends up working precisely because of the specific qualities of cinema; one was born to be a movie and one was born to be a radio play, and it's a pity for Bird Box that we don't still make the latter. But that doesn't make it any more acceptable that it is a movie.

But I was trying to be nice. Ignore the conceptual impossibility of the whole project, and the river journey is pretty nimble thriller filmmaking. You could support a tight 80-minute film with that river journey. As it turns out, though, you cannot support half of a two-hour movie, especially when every minute of the other half drags by like the last day of school. Just to make things even more aggravating, the film over-uses title cards in the river sequence, telling us where we are down to the minute, but never gives us any indication how much time has passed in that house, letting us just vaguely guess that it's been weeks or months. We have no sense of the breakdown of civility among the survivors (it goes exactly where it looks like, of course: Douglas will be right about everything, but so dickish and abrasive that nobody wants to do the things he suggests, and therefore die), no feeling of a ticking clock as Malorie's due date approaches. It's just a lot of bickering as people who are marked for death try to solve a mystery that we know in advance they won't solve. Meanwhile, the cutting is slack, and the film uses close-ups in a messy way - a lot of chins and foreheads getting cut off by the frame in a way that's either an accident, or an inexplicably bad choice - and the whole thing is so slickly digital that it looks more like a cruddy direct-to-cable thriller than a project prestigious enough to get Bullock (even the flat, droning Bullock we get here) attached in the lead. There's a leaner, more desperate version of Bird Box, focused on the raging momentum of the river escape and the constant state of disorientation of the blindfolded trio, and that film I would like. But that film is buried deep inside the bloated slog we've actually been given.