2023 | rated R | starring Mario Casas, Georgina Campbell | written & directed by David Pastor and Alex Pastor | In Spanish with Subtitles | 1h 52m |
2023 Halloween Horrorfest, Pt 2
I saw the Sandra Bullock/Netflix hit Bird Box when it came out in 2018 and it almost completely left my memory. For me it chalked up to a bland, messy post-apocalyptic thriller that built off of the sensory-deprivation horror of A Quiet Place with a poster of a blindfolded Bullock that made it seem like the star was trapped in a Jack Ketchem novel. It’s hit status made the possibility of a sequel inevitable, but turning a movie that leaned down hard on the supposed mystery of an unknown villain that we never, ever, see would be easier said than done. What mythology do you build out of these scraps? It’s from that point where Bird Box: Barcelona really impresses. Yes, we’ve seen similar post-apocalyptic movies like this, but where it could have so easily rehashed the original film, Barcelona takes more interesting turns in every direction, crafting a sequel to challenge the audience and attempt to turn this into a franchise with some staying power.
The story follows Sebastian (Mario Casas), a man wandering the wreckage of a world decimated by an unknown alien force morning the loss of his wife and child, until he is taken in by a group of survivors in Barcelona, meeting a mother (Georgina Campbell) and child in the process. But Sebastian isn’t the average survivor, he’s seen the creatures and come out the other side, convinced they are angels and embarks on a mission to free the souls of those around him and be reunited with his daughter once again.
For this round, new writing/directing team David and Alex Pastor turn Bird Box into something very different. Setting it in another part of the world, in a different language with a cast of relative unknowns and following what would be another movie’s villain, Barcelona’s changes are bold and better. They’ve seemingly taken the money the first film spent on name actors and used it to more convincingly build out the world. We move from nondescript woods to large open, empty city streets. Hints from the first film are expanded on and paid off. The voices the creatures put in the heads of their victims are explored, as is the cult of people who want them to see and the crazy behavior of those that do.
The fact that we don’t see the monsters of this world is woven essentially into the theme of BBB. Following a character who is forcing people to see them increasingly ups our own curiosity. When a man, shackled to a bed, cries out to see them at the end of the film it might as well be the audience after 2 movies. And yet, that ambiguity lets the film play with their lore. Some say these creatures are aliens. Some say they are angels delivering salvation to humanity. Without being able to see for ourselves we have to decide which of these characters we can trust. The movie really came to life for me when we saw people killed and glowing orbs were expelled from their body and shot up into the sky like souls drawn to heaven. It’s made clear, however, that we are seeing this through the eyes of Sebastian and Sebastian is both brainwashed by a cult and grief-stricken into being an unreliable narrator.
On the list of challenges to the audience, following a character who turns out to be the villain is high on the list. This gives the film itself an uphill climb if it’s going to do the work to give him a redemption arc. The world is built out more in Barcelona and we see how surviving groups hide during the day and use seeing-eye dogs to get around outside. The titular setting is immersive and used effectively.
So here is the question. Had the original Bird Box not existed and this was a stand-alone movie, I don’t know if I would be as high on it as I am. It’s very satisfying, well-told and it’s different in a 28 Weeks Later kind of way. But what really makes it pop is that it could have so easily just succumb to sequel-itis and given us the same thing again. The audience would have been happy, Netflix would have been happy and it would have been a hit. It takes a lot of guts to do something completely different. David and Alex Pastor have jumpstarted a dead-on-arrival horror-lite movie into something that could be a world-spanning franchise now.