Bird Box is an Allegory

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers about the movie Bird Box, and some statements might not make a lot of sense unless you’ve seen the movie.

I recently watched the movie, Bird Box, directed by Susanne Bier and starring Sandra Bullock. It’s a tense apocalyptic survival thriller, and I was engrossed. I just couldn’t look away (boom boom)!

When I got to the final scene of the movie, where the tension was resolved, I thought to myself, “This whole film has been an allegory.” That is, the surface-level story was symbolic of a deeper meaning. I could be wrong on this, and I’m willing to admit that I’m coming at this with my personal subjective Christian lens. But here’s my take on it.

Bird Box is actually about the problem of evil and suffering.

Like the epidemic that breaks out suddenly at the beginning of the movie, evil and suffering might seem distant from us—someone else’s problem that we see on TV. But actually it affects us all. As the mass-suicide epidemic takes hold around the main character, Malorie (Sandra Bullock), so we are all affected by evil, because we are all human. It causes us to do terrible things—not just to others, but to ourselves. It affects us in the core of our being. The two children in the film, Boy and Girl, are born into a world indelibly marked by evil and suffering. Those around them are profoundly affected by it. Both Boy and Girl represent the totality of the helpless human race and our situation in which the evil around us renders us powerless and vulnerable. With evil left unchecked, we do irreparable harm to ourselves as a human race. We are our own worst enemy, even when we are relatively innocent.

The problem is so inexorable, it’s impossible to ignore. There are those who try to look into the problem of evil and suffering—those who search for answers and understanding. Some are well meaning, like Greg (BD Wong), while others are self-deluded, like Gary (Tom Hollander). Either way, those who delve into why we suffer are looking into something that is actually beyond human comprehension. Some of us believe that we have found the ultimate answer to why we suffer, a bit like the friends of the biblical figure of Job, who think they know why Job is suffering so terribly when, in fact, they don’t. Such figures try to enlighten us by inviting us to see what they see. But even though they may derive a sense of satisfaction from their philosophical answers, ultimately they do not have the solution to the problem of evil and suffering, because they’re simply partaking of it. They are mad to think otherwise, or  to believe that true satisfaction lies in this world. Such satisfaction is just an illusion. Evil and suffering is a problem beyond human comprehension and beyond human capability of solving. Thus, even these enlightened ones who appear to have the answers are, like everyone else, mortally affected by evil.

Trying to deal with the problem ourselves doesn’t get us anywhere either. The characters fumble from their home to the supermarket, even against the odds. In this context, the supermarket is an El Dorado that promises salvation. But actually it solves nothing. The supermarket symbolises the pinnacle of human achievement that seems to have everything humans could possible want in this life. But the problem is that it’s simply not enough. As the characters realise when they are there, sooner or later, supplies and satisfaction will run out and they will die. The road to civilisation and progress is beneficial to a certain extent, but it cannot solve the problem of evil, anymore than the supermarket can solve the epidemic outside its walls.

The solution to evil and suffering lies not in comprehending the problem, or in trying to stock ourselves with enough civilisation and progress. Being nice, like Olympia (Danielle Macdonald), isn’t enough either. The solution lies in being delivered from evil.

Rescue comes to Malories and the two children in a surprising way. This is highlighted by such things as the blindfolds that they wear, which shields them from even trying to comprehend the problem of evil and suffering. The wire reels that Malorie uses to navigate while blindfolded might seem like a leash that limits her freedom, but actually they help keep her tethered and alive. Such limits do not make Malorie and the two children immune to suffering, for they continue to stumble through life, but it helps them focus on being rescued, rather than overcoming something they cannot possible defeat on their own.

Like the voice on the radio, we need to be told of salvation by someone else—someone who doesn’t just claim to know it and yet is actually just part of the problem, but someone who actually has experienced salvation firsthand. The voice on the radio belongs to Rick (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a man downstream whom we never see until the end of the movie. He is just a voice in whom Malorie needs to put her faith in order to be rescued. He tells Malorie what she needs to know, rather than what she may just want to know, but she needs to respond to him. Rick has gone before her and is standing where salvation for Malorie and the two children lies. And yet, Malorie and the two children need to be shielded by Tom (Trevante Rhodes), who is willing to give up his own life in taking the mortal threat down, so that they can escape. In this way, both Rick and Tom are messiah figures.

The river journey is also indicative of how helpless we humans are at escaping evil and suffering. Just as we need to be borne to safety by something outside ourselves, so the river’s current, with all its perils, brings Malorie, Boy, and Girl to safety. Rick, the voice on the radio, instructs Malorie to take the river as the only viable means of escape. Salvation is found nowhere else, but in taking the river. By getting into their boat, drifting on its long course, and even being thrown into its freezing water, Malorie and the two children are baptised into the very thing that is going to see them reach safety. Being on the river does not makes them immune to suffering, but it does save them.

Then, after surviving the deadly rapids, Malorie and the children emerge into the place where Rick has been all along—a sanctuary filled with the blind. This is one of the most interesting but logical twists of the movie. How do you survive something that kills you if you look at it? By not looking at it and using your other senses. Malorie and the children wear blindfolds to accomplish this for most of the film, but the blind are the epitome of how to survive. These are not perfect and flawless people. On the contrary, they are aware of suffering because of their condition. But better to enter life blind than with two working eyes fall into a hellish fate. The blind may have their challenges, and be pitied by the rest of humanity, but in this thriller of escape, their suffering is actually their glory that ensures their salvation.

Once in safety, the future of Boy and Girl is secured. Until that final moment, they have been generic characters—vulnerable “Boy” and “Girl,” who haven’t even been properly named because of the problem threatening their very existence. But now they are given real names, and acquire their true identity. They now have a future.

Finally, why is the movie called Bird Box? Like canaries down a mineshaft, the birds in the movie are sensitive to that which threatens humanity, and are used as an early warning system. Malorie and the children take along a small box with three birds in it, by which they can help discern any threats around them. And when Malorie and the children reach the sanctuary of the blind at the end of the movie, they hear birds that help them discern that they’ve reached safety. The birds are therefore harbingers of both danger and salvation—evil as well as good. I don’t think the bird box stands for the human conscience, morality, or even logic, because the birds are independent of the humans. Rather, the birds are a divinely given gift that guides the humans—a kind of Spirit that you ignore to your own peril.

I think there are lots of other things going on in the film. For instance, Malorie is not a flawless character, and the whole issue of her being a single mother in a hellish situation raises some of the challenges facing women in modern society. Why Douglas (John Malkovich) is at times infuriatingly annoying and at other times infuriatingly logical is fascinating. And then there’s poor Charlie (Lil Rel Howery), whose whole world is consumed by the end of the world. However, I’m not aiming to explain this other elements.

I might be reading way too much into things with my overt Christian-conditioned lens. But hey, that’s what the movie seemed to symbolise for me.

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A Review of ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’

I recently saw Ridley Scott’s film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, starring Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton. If you’re expecting to see a movie version of the biblical narratives, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. But then, why would you expect Hollywood to produce that? If it’s the Exodus narrative you’re after, just open a Bible and read it. If you’re expecting something to rival Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, then you’ll also be disappointed. This film is far gritier, and lacks the melodrama of mid-twentieth century cinema. It also has some really good bits, too. In particular, its depiction of Egyptian palace life was, I thought, very nicely done. The human side of ancient life came through quite nicely, avoiding the stern caricatures that populate The Ten Commandments.

Exodus: Gods and Kings reinterprets the Exodus story in ways that depart distinctly from the biblical narratives. It takes up a series of themes that are very much at home in our post-9/11 world, seeing faith through a foggy postmodern lens.

Here are my brief impressions about the message of the film. I’ve kept the spoilers to an absolute minimum, so my comments here shouldn’t affect your viewing. In fact, I hope they might enhance your experience.

Having watched the film, I now understand Christian Bale’s comment that he thinks Moses was a very disturbed, possibly schizophrenic individual. His comments were evidently not based on the biblical narratives, but on the screenplay for the film. To appreciate Bale’s comments, look out for what happens when Moses chases three sheep up a mountain, and then the conversation he has with wife, Zipporah (Maria Valverde), just a few minutes later. These two ‘scenes’ bracket one of the most important scenes in the movie, but also demonstrate the cause of the change in Moses’ character.

The film continues the oft-worn path of seeing Moses and Ramesses as practically brothers. They are two people raised very closely with similar values, with circumstances eventually driving them apart and bringing them into conflict with each other. This means the movie also continues the Hollywood theme of Moses being unaware of his actual identity as a Hebrew. Nowhere does the biblical narrative of Exodus name the Egyptian Pharaoh, nor does it imply that Moses was unaware of his heritage. In fact, if anything, it implies he was aware, and that it plagued him (excuse the pun!). I was hoping that Moses would be portrayed with awareness of his heritage, but it seems the ‘unknown secret identity’ theme is too good to drop in a Hollywood production.

The film is clearly trying to say that religious faith is not neat. It has both good aspects and bad. In particular, it aims to say that there is a fine line between faith and fundamentalism, and adherents to a particular faith need to work hard at ensuring they do not slide into fanaticism. At the same time, it also shows that the circumstances people find themselves in sometimes call for desperate measures. This doesn’t excuse fundamentalism, but it helps to give it a context, and calls for reasoned development that tries to avoid it. Moses’ initial actions when he returns to Egypt clearly demonstrate all this. But in saying this, the film is not repudiating faith. On the contrary, the film is arguing for the validity of faith as a good thing, but it is not a pure good. It sees it as a messy good that is easily tainted. It therefore requires careful attention and development. The character of Moses in the early part of the film is rationalist—something that changes after his interaction with God. This change is demonstrating that reason alone is not enough to make sense of the world. Reason without faith is callous. But faith without reason is in danger of becoming fundamentalism.

The portrayal of God in the film is one of the most surprising aspects of it. It’s also the one that people of faith (Christian or Jewish) will likely find the most objectionable. The film is trying to say that biblical faith has come a long way since ancient times. Biblical faith is an advance on the superstition of ancient religions like that of the Egyptians. But in the days of Moses, biblical faith was still in its infancy. Faith needs time to settle and find a good balance, both for the humans who have faith, and for the God who sparks it. The film aims to say that Judeo-Christian belief has come a very long way from very messy, even childish beginnings. God himself has developed significantly as he has interacted with human beings. In portraying God this way, the film sees him as very much in the same mould as kings: powerful, but not omnipotent or omniscient; flawed, but perhaps trying to do his best. As such, the film creates God in human image. But this also explains the film’s subtitle: Gods and Kings.

A consequent notion of this portrayal is that other faiths might also have troubled beginnings, but given time and reason, they may contribute something valid to people’s lives. In a world that does not wish to denounce Islam while also wanting to condemn acts of terror committed in its name, the film treads a very politically correct middle path. In a postmodern way, it validates people’s chosen faith, while also encouraging critique and reform.

The film demythologises the miraculous, like the plagues and the Red Sea crossing, while trying not to undermine their impact as supernatural. This clearly demonstrates the film’s intent to show how faith and reason must go together, especially in considering natural disasters. The character of Moses also conveys this strongly. He is a man of reason who becomes driven also by religious conviction on the basis of his personal experience. The film does allow for special revelation to occur, but it also confines it to the personal realm. See, for example, the way the character of Joshua views Moses’ interactions with God from a distance. This is vastly different to the biblical narrative which portrays the revelation of Yahweh as publicly dynamic and ‘in your face’.

A very significant feature of the film is the human face it gives to the Egyptians. The biblical narratives do not name any Egyptians (not even the Pharaoh), allowing the reader to keep them all at a safe arm’s length. But the film does not do this. The final plague in particular shows that the Egyptians—the ‘other’—have faces, names, and relatives. This had quite an impact, and helped the film further its agenda to show the thin line between faith and fundamentalism.

The last few segments of the film do well in showing that Israel was baptised into Moses, and that God went with them through the wilderness.

On a different note: The Battle of Qadesh at the opening of the film was not fought in a remote desert. Qadesh was a thriving city in a verdant Syrian valley.

Ridley Scott isn’t Cecil B. DeMille, and nor should he be. But there are some good moments in the film. I never thought I’d feel sorrow for Pharaoh, but after the last plague, I did. And I never saw Moses wearing a watch!

If you’re hoping to see the book of Exodus come alive on the screen, think again. Hollywood is not interested in portraying biblical truth. Besides, we have the Bible anyway, so why should anyone expect divine revelation to come from a film? Exodus: Gods and Kings does, however, make a postmodern comment on faith and its development.

The Tree of Life

Question: What do you get when you cross the book of Job with Brad Pitt and put it in 1950s Texas?

Answer: The Tree of Life.

The Tree of Life is a movie produced by Terrence Malick and is about to hit our cinema screens in coming weeks. I was fortunate enough to be invited to an advance screening of the film, so I thought I’d jot down some quick thoughts about it.

Now don’t worry, I’ll try not to give the game away with too many spoilers. But the fact is it’s almost impossible to do that. You see, the movie doesn’t really have a plot per se. It does have a storyline, but the movie is actually not about the story. It’s one of the things that makes this film so unusual. The storyline is almost completely incidental. But let me give you a sense of the story that’s there, anyway.

Jack (Hunter McCracken) is a young boy growing up in Texas in the 1950s. He has very contrasting relationships with his father (Brad Pitt), who is very harsh and rigid, and his mother (Jessica Chastain), who is very warm and loving. The two parents symbolise two ways that you can live life: the way of nature is harsh and says that if you want to succeed in life, you can’t be too good; the way of grace says that to be truly happy you have to love, but this also will bring you pain. Jack grows up torn between these two ways of living, and they affect the way he relates with his family (including two brothers). The struggle continues to haunt him into his adulthood as he tries to make sense of life (the adult Jack is played by Sean Penn). The family as a whole also struggles to come to grips with the death of one of Jack’s brothers, and it is this which frames the entire storyline.

However, the film is not really about how Jack relates to his family. It’s much more than that. Jack and his circumstances are merely a microcosm of the wild, wonderful, and woe-ridden world. The Tree of Life is an exploration of the meaning of life and death within the grand scheme of a vast and enormous universe, and the supposedly good God who controls it. Most films move forward through a series of scenes, but The Tree of Life moves forward by rolling through a collage of symbolic images, stunning ‘cosmic’ visuals (Stanley Kubrick would be proud of these), and suggestive sequences. These are intermittently punctuated by the odd scene. So this is not your typical film. It’s very ‘art house’ in this respect. And right throughout the film, the characters whisper deep philosophical statements and ask poignant questions directed at God and how he deals with meagre human beings within the unchartered vastness that is the universe. The death of Jack’s brother provokes these big questions that the film wants to ask. “What are we to you [God]?” It also makes the accusation, “You [God] let a boy die. You let anything happen!”

But the film doesn’t feel like it’s throwing muck at God. In fact, despite the many woes and pains of life, the film never suggests that God may not be good. Rather, it puts forward these significant questions and statements in a sincerely inquisitive manner, trying to make sense of the seeming paradoxes in life as they occur under the watchful eye of a good, stunningly creative, and infinitely powerful God. As such, the film very much feels like a modern-day expression of the book of Job, mixed with a good amount of Ecclesiastes, and sprinkled with a bit of Romans 7. Indeed, the film opens quoting God’s words to Job from Job 38.4, 7:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?…
When all the sons of God shouted for joy? 

Biblical themes run right throughout the film. It explores the goodness of a creative God who gives, but the enigma of a powerful God who also takes away. It considers the sheer beauty of life within a wondrous universe, but also acknowledges how humans are tainted by greed, selfishness, ambition, and death. There is a truly evocative picture at one point in the movie where the toddler Jack meets his baby brother whose crib, though draped under beautiful and innocent white sheer curtains, bears a stark resemblance to a coffin. We see life and death competing over a human soul, and wait to see how this soul forms, develops, makes choices, and ultimately faces the challenges of existing in this world.

This is a film where the visuals and the whispered questions convey most of the content. In fact, most of the 138 minutes of the film are spent splicing from one visual image to the next. At times, these are hard to understand, and they had me scratching my head many a time. But that, I think, is a deliberate ploy on the part of the director. The point is that life is hard to figure out, and so Malick has directed a film that is also hard to figure out. The Tree of Life is like a puzzle that forces you to think, and often leaves you thinking that what you’ve just seen is meaningless and random. But that’s the point: life often is meaningless and random (at this point you should read Ecclesiastes), but one can still view within it a beauty that leads to awe. The experience of watching this film is as much a part of the message of the film as are the lines spoken by the characters.

If you want a quiet evening’s entertainment, a bit of action, or a twisting thriller, then this is not the film for you. This film is very arty, very philosophical, and very theological. If you go to watch it, be prepared to ponder and puzzle. You’ll probably find yourself screwing up your face at regular intervals wondering, “What was that?”