Last week Netflix dropped two offerings that can be seen to overlap in the sci fi genre, so I thought I’d talk about each one, though we’ve seen quite a lot of talk already about these two, especially from Netflix itself.
Bird Box seemed like it would have a lot to offer, especially with a cast including Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich. However, though its an entertaining story at times, as a significant contribution to the genre, it fails. Part of the problem is that there’s use of many cliches from the post apocalytpic dystopian playbook. First among them is the underlying symbolic storyline that the protagonist must make an arduous physical journey to go from the reality of the dystopia to the new reality of a discovered sanctuary. This theme goes back to at least Logan’s Run but also elements can be seen in the earlier adaptation of Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 and then much later in, for instance, the recent reboot of The Handmaid’s Tale. So, with 50 years plus of reliving the Odyssey in our end of the world dramas, I didn’t think we need it again. Although just like the 1973 Poseidon Adventure was advertised with the slogan, “Hell, Upside Down!”, perhaps Bird Box could be advertised as “The Odyssey, Blindfolded!” Yeah, OK, not too catchy.
On top of this, we have the rogues gallery trapped together constantly bickering over whether its better to save people who are coming to them for help, or whether to turn them away since they usually mean trouble. Malkovich’s character (Doug) is the self-proclaimed asshole always arguing that new people bring death. Bullock’s character (Mallory) is always arguing that “we aren’t assholes” and have to save people. Yikes! Predictably, they default to saving people, but Doug is correct anyway, meaning that a bunch of people die (including Doug of course, but not Mallory).
Then, there are the largely unseen monsters that others have written about. Yes, its a disappointment that we never really see them, other than through their effect on leaves, people’s faces and once when we see the delightful and absolutely crazy Gary drawing pictures of them. But bigger than that, the concept of the monster so hideous that we can’t really look at it or it will result in insanity and death goes back to the Gorgon, and in slightly more recent times, episodes of Star Trek (“Is There in Truth No Beauty?”) and Space: 1999 (“Immunity Syndrome”).
I will say that I enjoyed seeing Malkovich clearing having some fun with being a jerk. I just wish his character had been slightly less one dimensional (or maybe he was slightly 2 dimensional towards the end?).
A little bit about extraterrestrial life here: What were these demon’s supposed to be? We never know whether they are terrestrial life forms, extra-terrestrial, supernatural demons or figments of the imagination of folks infected by some virus. In reality, if something like this were to happen, we might never know the nature of the cause, so perhaps not seeing much of the monsters or knowing their origin is realistic, though it is unsatisfying. Perhaps the book says more?
And now for Bandersnatch. This is this year’s first installment of the anthology series, Black Mirror, which is now in its 5th season. However, rather than split the season (which I suppose they might still do), they offered one of the episodes as a stand alone feature, Bandersnatch. The episode features a 19 year old computer programmer in mid 1980’s England. He is attempting to create a game that resembles a book, Bandersnatch, that allows the reader to chose the direction of the story at various points. He (Stefan) becomes troubled and at various points he feels he is being controlled (on top of this, he was already troubled by the early death of his mother). At the meta-level Stefan *is* being controlled by the viewer, as we are given choices for how the story will proceed at various points. At one point, we even have the choice of telling him that he’s on Netflix! Yes, that disturbs Stefan further! One of the paths related to this choice has Stefan believing that his reality is actually a television show, and he’s on the set. Although somewhat interesting, it been done a few times before with somewhat different premises (original Twilight Zone in “World of Difference” and 1960’s British Series, UFO in “Mindbender”, and even once before in Black Mirror with “White Bear”.
Despite the reasonably high entertainment level of being able to make these choices for Stefan (and seeing the story play out in different ways based on these choices), the story really only ever get’s interesting when he’s discussing the philosophy of life (including living out different time lines) with fellow programmer and mentor, Colin Ritman. But in the end, the choices for his life really only lead to relatively uninteresting choices of killing his Dad, killing Ritman, etc.. Its fun if you like horror in your sci fi, but otherwise feels bland as a plot choice.
So, Netflix, thanks for the sci fi (-ish) offerings, but this isn’t you at your best.
If you like this post, then please read other posts and take a look at my (Steve Bloom’s) book, The Physics and Astronomy of Science Fiction, available from McFarland Publishing and your favorite online booksellers.