The term “spiritual warfare” often brings up wild images of exorcisms or other over-the-top supernatural encounters where believers confront evil spirits. But when the apostle Paul brings up the concept in Ephesians 6, his description is fairly vague. The struggle, he writes, “is against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
Dark forces don’t have to be actual demons. They can be just as overwhelming in the form of injustice, systemic racism, poverty, genocide, or any societal ill you care to name. If you’ve logged onto social media or listened to the news at all in the last few years, you’ve probably felt a certain level of burnout from seeing so much human suffering repeated, analyzed, and debated. Sometimes, in the name of self care, it feels as if the best thing you can do to keep from losing your mind is to just look away.
The urge—even necessity—of looking away is also what powers the hit Netflix thriller Bird Box, which is about a deadly evil that spreads across the world like a plague. In the film, seeing the evil force causes people to either kill themselves or go homicidally insane. The only way to survive is to not look. And so people cover their windows and blindfold themselves when they’re outside. As the established social order disintegrates, those left behind have to decide whether to fight back, remain hopeful, or put their heads down and simply survive.
Bird Box’s protagonist, Malorie (Sandra Bullock), is firmly of the pure survival school when we meet her. The film opens with her preparing her two children, efficiently named Boy and Girl, for a dangerous, blindfolded boat journey toward a commune that promises security. Bird Box switches between their experience and the beginning of the epidemic five years earlier, when a then-pregnant Malorie first sought refuge with a group of others.
The people we meet in the flashback scenes each have their own reaction to what’s happening. Selfish lawyer Douglas (John Malkovich) trusts no one, always assumes the worst, and liberally self-medicates with booze. Charlie (Lil Rel Howery), an aspiring writer, tends toward end-times thinking. Trevante Rhodes’ sensitive optimist Tom provides the strongest counterpoint to Malorie’s detached pragmatism. He believes survival doesn’t only mean getting through the day, but maintaining hope and sustaining relationships. It’s a point of view that becomes increasingly persistent as his and Malorie’s own relationship develops.
Will Malorie learn to accept that there is a future ahead, and that the harsh reality of right now isn’t all there is? In the “present” of Bird Box, chronicling Malorie and the kids’ harrowing trip down the river, what starts as a bid for survival becomes a leap of faith. It’s a change in attitude heavily informed by Tom’s insistence that love, not fear, should define how he, Malorie, and the children live their lives. The concept of believing in a better world without being able to see it applies not just to the stark visual of the blindfolded Malorie, but particularly to Boy and Girl (Julien Edwards and Vivien Lyra Blair). In their innocent faces, the weight of that faith becomes even more clear. As the film’s most vulnerable characters, they have to trust that Malorie has their best interests at heart, even as their little boat bumps through dangerous rapids and, at one perilous point, capsizes.
Will Malorie learn to accept that the harsh reality of right now isn’t all there is?
Living in our world right now can feel like encountering a concentrated dose of evil; it’s hard to know what to do with that feeling. The look on the faces of those who see Bird Box’s evil—the shock, tears, and uncontrollable physical response—feels all too easy to relate to. Other times, it feels like we’re walking through the world blindfolded, either in hopes of living unaffected by the pain around us or in a desperate attempt to reach out toward a better future, unsure that said future will ever actually arrive.
Fortunately, God has given us a defense against falling into total despair and a way to proactively engage with a broken, sorrow-filled world. We have the “full armor of God” Paul writes of in Ephesians. We have the strength of God’s word and the truth of the gospel to remind us that the darkness isn’t all there is. We can fight for something better, because we know there is a new reality coming, one defined by love and relationship.
There is an echo of this eschatological vision in Bird Box. (Spoilers ahead.) When Malorie finally arrives at the commune she’s been seeking, what she finds is something close to N.T. Wright’s description of a new heaven and a new earth, where heaven isn’t a plane we ascend to but one that comes down to us. The community Malorie finds is a school for the blind, peopled by survivors whose handicap has now become their greatest strength and who use that advantage to open the door to others in need. It’s a moving example of the last becoming first in the kingdom of God.
Upon arrival at their safe haven, Malorie and the kids finally remove their blindfolds. It’s the first time Malorie has really looked at the natural world in a long time, and the first time the children have for more than a few seconds. What they see is an idyllic courtyard filled with golden light, trees, and people freely walking around, interacting, playing. This community isn’t totally separated from the evil forces (they’re still right outside the door), but evil is absent from within its walls. Like Wright suggests in his take on paradise, this is an improvement of reality, not an erasure of it.
Bird Box isn’t perfect—there’s some squandered creative potential in its script and the thin characterizations often mean its cast of fantastic performers don’t have much to work with. However, its central themes are timely and powerful. It’s a film that effectively captures, in the form of a striking visual metaphor, our culture’s current emotional overload.
Fortunately, the film doesn’t stay stuck in that desperate space. It’s ultimately a hopeful story, reflecting the same kind of optimism we find in the New Testament. Like Paul’s message in Ephesians, Bird Box reminds us that we have the capacity to resist the dark forces that define our world in the now, and to live into the bright promise of the world to come.