There's loads of promise in Netflix's "Bird Box."
Start with a killer cast, headlined by Sandra Bullock, and featuring John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, Trevante Rhodes, Sarah Paulson, Danielle Macdonald, Lil Rel Howery and Tom Hollander in supporting roles. Drop them into a story adapted by Eric Heisserer, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of the brainy sci-fi film "Arrival."
Stir in a high-concept plot, inspired by Josh Malerman's 2014 novel about a post-apocalyptic world in which people must navigate its terrors blind, lest they so much as look at invasive entities with the power to take on the form of one's deepest fears. As a premise — which assumes that the sense of sight could open the door to accelerated madness and suicide — it has echoes of the masterful suspense thriller "A Quiet Place," in which the slightest sound could be deadly.
But as these auspicious ingredients come together under filmmaker Susanne Bier, the Danish director of the Oscar-winning "In a Better World," the dish never quite jells. The film essentially begins at its climax, and then backtracks, via flashback, to the onset of the crisis, hopping forward and back repeatedly over a five-year gap. This has the effect of destroying momentum.
In the very first scene, we meet Bullock's Malorie as she prepares to guide two small children, known only as Boy and Girl (Julian Edwards and Vivien Lyra Blair), down a river in a small boat — with blindfolds on. It's a dangerous journey, yes; the river contains rapids. But it's not as dangerous as opening their eyes.
To explain why, "Bird Box" must go back five years to the arrival of the threat, which we never quite see, except as shadows and a kind of static "wind" that lifts fallen leaves off the ground. Malorie, who is pregnant, finds shelter with a small band of survivors, who have holed up in a house with the windows blacked out.
These scenes are among the film's most interesting and suspenseful, although Heisserer's script sometimes includes bizarre tonal shifts. One scene in which the group makes a run to a grocery store for supplies — driving a car with the windows painted over, guided only by GPS and the vehicle's proximity sensor — is actually rather funny, as the car's tires roll over and crush the skulls of deceased victims lying in the street.
It's treated as a morbid joke, but it doesn't really mesh with the rest of the film, which otherwise plays the dread straight, not for laughs.
There are certain pleasures here, mostly in the cast of characters. Malkovich's misanthropic egoist is chief among them. And Bullock makes for a fierce and relatable Mama Bear.
But as for tension, there's precious little. "Bird Box" (which takes its name from the ability of birds to sense the presence of the film's creatures) never really makes us feel the story's stakes. Unlike "A Quiet Place," which also mixed fear with a meditation on the meaning of family, this story of survival — with one fewer sense than the five God gave us — ultimately remains an intellectual exercise, not an emotional one.
(Netflix said Friday the film had been watched by about 45 million accounts since its Dec. 21 debut — the best first seven days for a film released on the platform.)