Film Review – Bird Box: Barcelona
Bird Box: Barcelona
Bird Box (2018) was a sci-fi/horror film that contained shades of The Happening (2008) and The Mist (2007). Based on the novel by Josh Malerman, the premise involved an invasion by an unseen force (Aliens? Demons?) that causes anyone who looks at them to turn suicidal. It incorporated themes of faith in a world that was quickly running out of it. Fast forward five years later, and we get Bird Box: Barcelona (2023), a standalone story taking place in the same universe. The basic set up is the same. This entry has the familiar beats of a sequel: It’s bigger in size and scope, with a larger cast and more complex set pieces. We transition from the rivers and woodlands to the city, which has fallen into a dystopia. But does a change in scenery make for a worthy installment? That answer is not quite clear.
I will say this: There are some concepts introduced here that makes the overall piece more interesting than we would assume. Writing/directing tandem David and Àlex Pastor lean heavily into the religious aspects that come when mankind faces extinction. Not only do we get people taking their lives once they lay eyes upon these monsters, but we also meet a group of faith-based extremists who work in their favor. They walk around without blindfolds, seemingly immune to any suicidal thoughts. Instead, they work on making others “see” the beauty of their invaders, forcing victims to open their eyes in hopes of “setting them free.” Now, the entire foundation of the narrative is a little kooky to begin with, but creating a situation where humans take part in their own demise under allegiance to a foreign conquerer does create a fascinating moral conundrum.
That is the conflict our protagonist – Sebastián (Mario Casas) – faces. He is one of the few who is not swayed to death by the creatures. Instead, he works for them, gaining the trust of unsuspecting targets and exposing them at precisely the wrong time. Sebastián is wracked with guilt, suffering the trauma of losing both his wife and daughter, Anna (Alejandra Howard). He is haunted by the image of Anna, who follows him day and night, encouraging him to take down as many souls as he can. His mission reaches a crossroads when he meets a group of survivors. Amongst them are Octavio (Diego Calva), Rafa (Patrick Criado), married couple Isabel (Lola Dueñas) and Roberto (Gonzalo de Castro), the English speaking Claire (Georgina Campbell), and a young German girl named Sofia (Naila Schubert). What starts out as a deception becomes an internal battle for Sebastián. He develops empathy for the group, and even sees Sofia in a familiar light as his own daughter. But the ghosts of his past beckon him, splitting his allegiance in two. What side he chooses becomes the central point of tension.
Mario Casas delivers a strong performance in the lead role. Sebastián’s story is one of grief and survivor’s guilt, and Casas gives him the nuance that makes his journey captivating. He doesn’t just follow the monsters’ bidding without hesitation, even though he starts out that way. The writing and direction allows us to see him questioning his actions. In one of the strongest emotional scenes, Sebastián asks whether he is a shepherd leading his flock to prosperity, or if he is merely a wolf preying on the weak. Cases anchors the narrative well, using Sebastián’s growing desperation as a way of ratcheting up the suspense. The ghost of Anna hangs over his shoulder – a clear metaphor of his inner turmoil. Some of the best sequences involve Sebastián either helping or harming those around him, with Anna quietly standing in the shadows watching him.
As strong as the development is with the main character, the story structure comes up short. The middle act drags immensely, stretching what feels like 90 minutes worth of narrative into a full two hours. The plot is divided into two sections: One taking place in the present and the other a flashback to Sebastián experiencing the beginnings of the outbreak. The editing cuts back and forth between them constantly, creating a “stop and start” effect that never allows the pacing to gain momentum. We learn of Sebastián’s personal issues in the present, and then double back to see the events that caused his trauma. The circular nature undermines the overall result. Although the action of the flashback scenes are impressive (especially the shot of Sebastián running along the street seeing the chaos unfold), it adds little new information.
In terms of the action, Barcelona has some surprisingly effective set pieces. An early scene features a commuter bus barreling inside of a parking garage, hurtling through a barricade and then flipping onto its side. The camerawork (Daniel Aranyó) has the frame following along as the bus careens around the interiors and smashes its way outside in full view of the alien beings. From what I could tell, it looked like this was done practically, with minimal digital effects. Another example takes place in a flashback as Sebastián follows a crowd into an underground subway station. Unfortunately, this becomes a death trap as the monsters make their way to the same location. As each person’s eyes gloss over, the crowd slowly makes its way to the edge of the platform, one by one throwing themselves onto the tracks. The tension mounts as Sebastián tries to swim against a tide of bodies – the now zombified crowd pushing him closer towards death. Some of the more CGI-heavy effects don’t work (the use of fire is particularly unconvincing), but on the whole the action is well staged and executed.
Bird Box: Barcelona is a good film – if we squint really hard we might actually find a great one. Unfortunately, that potential is buried underneath a thinly drawn and repetitive story. Even worse, it attempts to leave the door open for the possibility of additional sequels and spinoffs. I’m not against the idea of Bird Box turning into an anthology series. But if that’s the case, can we at least make them stand on their own before trying to sell the audience on what’s coming up next? Barcelona introduces some interesting ideas about faith and redemption, I just wish it had more of a chance to explore them.