'Bird Box' and religion in the modern world
by Honor Roberts
Bishop Barron on “Bird Box”
I recently watched a clip featuring this title, where Bishop Robert Barron, who is the Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in America, commented on Netflix’s 2018 “Bird Box” drama.
Having not watched the film, I was pleased to discover that this commentary does not require one to have watched the movie or to possess any prior knowledge of it, before one can digest Bishop Barron’s views.
What drew me in was they way he described it as having ‘cultural resonance’ at the beginning of the clip.
He opened in reflection by stating, ‘I think despite itself, it sheds quite a bit of light on our rather powerless spiritual condition today.’
Laying out the given principles of the film, describing how Sandra Bullock playing the character of Mallory, is a gifted painter; her paintings reveal what is true of her personality, namely that she finds it hard to connect with other people. She is pregnant, but there is no indication shown of who the father is and more, she is shown to be indifferent about him. Mallory’s character seems resolved to put her baby up for adoption once it is born. She is shown to be a gifted, but disconnected person.
The action truly kicks off when Mallory goes to the hospital for a routine check-up. As she is leaving, all hell breaks loose (in a literal sense), when some maleficent, spiritual forces attack the people in the town. What is shown to happen is that when people see them or are made to see them, they ‘immediately and ferociously are compelled to commit suicide’.
As Mallory steps out, she is dazed seeing the havoc around her, as if entranced people are ending their lives; they are shown walking into flames, stabbing themselves and walking in front of moving buses.
She frantically gets into a house, as it appears the spectres cannot operate in doors. A group of people inside huddle together. This is where the film then unfolds with the story of the group’s desperate attempts to survive, as they know they will eventually have to go outside, in order to get supplies. Everyone in the house is then sooner or later exposed to the spectres and they end up committing suicide. Everyone that is, apart from Mallory, the baby to whom she gives birth and another child born from a woman, now dead, who was pregnant at the time she entered the house.
Later, Mallory and the two children hear from a crackling, indistinct radio that there is a haven, where people have found refuge from the monstrosity; it is located down river from where they are. The second part of the film centres on this desperate journey, with the three of them blindfolded for protection, so they cannot see the spectres.
After enduring many trials along the journey, they find the haven, where it turns out to be a school for the blind. It is very bucolic, where there is a ubiquitous sense of human warmth. Nature is very much a large focus in the school. It is here that Mallory is able take off her blindfold and relax both psychologically and spiritually and to finally find connection with the children.
As the director says, this story is about motherhood, how a woman discovers connections with her children. It can be said to be a story about how one can find a certain comfort in the face of great danger, by each other and in the beauty of nature.
The Bishop paused for moment after saying this, as if with unyielding resolution. Then with a new animated energy, started:
‘But here is what I found really interesting about the movie:
It is not so much what is in it, but what is not in it. Namely any reference to God. ‘
The Bishop begun casually including the fact of his prior commentaries on other such disaster movies, noting aliens, comets from outer space and dinosaurs. He emphasised the fact that in all these and more generally in films, ‘hardly anyone in movies today prays, ever invokes God in the face of these challenges.’
I think it is significant that the Bishop mentions that differently from others, this film was especially prominent, as it does not include such dinosaurs or aliens; the characters in Bird Box are dealing with precisely ‘malign spiritual forces…for a better term, demons.’
Barron reflectively emphasises that demons have invaded their territory. But nobody talks about God or asks him for help.
Going back toward the beginning of the film Bishop Barron unfolded a particularly telling scene, where one of the young men of the house, whilst they are unsettlingly trying to understand what is going on in the chaos around them, the man uttered a farrago of wild theories born of mythology and ancient religion to explain what was happening. Referring to this scene as ‘tragic comic’ the Bishop laid out how the others react to him with disbelief and confusion. Shortly after the man replied, “I got it on the Internet.”
The Bishop appeared struck by this.
As he highlighted how this was ‘telling of our time’, going back to his original claim, I realised his argument was pointing at something more hidden. I assume we can agree this is rare to see a mass of people in one place all give themselves to death in way of jumping in front of buses or stabbing themselves all about us. Though it is a boldly hellish situation in the movie, Bishop Barron highlighted a subtler interpretation, in that amongst this spiritual crisis that has emerged, or for a better term, ‘spiritual warfare’, he questioned:
‘Does anyone [including the man] have the ability to reach in to the classical religious view in order to understand what is going on and to know what to do?
No. All they’ve got is this weird tumult of ideas and disconnected myths drawn from the internet.’ Relaxingly chuckling, he added, ‘No wonder these people are lost. ‘
“Bird Box” was streamed around Christmas time and the Bishop opened how he noticed a connection between this movie and the famous festive film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Judging from the Bishop’s old familiar sense of warmth as he reflected on watching “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I didn’t’ find it hard to imagine that this was perhaps the near ‘48th time’ that he had watched it.
‘You know what especially struck me? It was the famous scene when George Bailey is on the bridge. He is faced by his worst fear, the sum total of them. They have lost the money and it means his business is going to go under; it means he is going to lose his reputation; it means he might go to jail and he might lose his family - everything he loves.'
Paralleling Bird Box, ‘He has seen his worst fear.’
The Bishop went on to affirm that ‘…on that bridge, he prays. He prays to God.’
Although it takes him a while to figure out that his prayer has been answered, we can see it was, because God sends the angle “Clarence”, who then leads George Bailey on a journey.
Going back to the “Bird Box” movie, the Bishop emphasises one of the characters’ lines that tried define what the evil forces actually are, concluding that ‘they make you see all your worst fears’.
The Bishop stated his central point:
‘If you are looking at all your worst fears and have no sense of God, I think the natural response is what you see in ‘Bird Box’. It is people saying “I am just going to end my life."
But see, George Bailey did see his worst fears, but he had the religious and metaphysical frame work to understand what to do. And so, he prayed, and in that great act came salvation.’
Personally, the latter point seems most significant in understanding his idea. This is what seems to show where the divide lies between this movie made some 70 years ago and the current “Bird Box”.
The Bishop mellowly added, ‘I think “Bird Box” is a good movie… I am not bad mouthing the movie.
But I do think if we look at the trajectory from George Bailey to Mallory, and how people are dealing with real spiritual crisis, I think you are going to notice a certain devolution that has happened in our culture.’
I agree with Bishop Barron’s commentary on “Bird Box” and its ‘cultural resonance’. As a Christian it may seem obvious that I would agree with Bishop Barron, that through connection to God one has hope and a way out in the face of total monstrosity. However, I think more, beyond my personal faith, it makes logical sense, that like George Bailey, when one simply understands the ‘religious and metaphysical framework’ they are instantly given the tools to know what to do, in order to be saved from chaos. In “Bird Box”, it seems to demonstrate how without this simple understanding, which are the ‘tools’ if you like, one has no way out of the crisis; but one’s only response, as is shown, is to end their life, as they are being drawn to do by the evil forces. By comparison, I agree that George Bailey’s character is effective in demonstrating how through a simple act of prayer, which does not require our own strength for deliverance, but by God’s power we can be saved. However, now our culture through neglect of God does not even seem to possess the simple understanding of God through which is the only way we can be helped and saved from the disasters around us.