Life Without Love Is Blind: The Philosophy of Bird Box
The recent Netflix phenomenon, Bird Box, presents two radically different understandings of life. Malorie, the main character, values survival above all else. This seems like a prudent philosophy to adopt in an apocalyptic world, but Malorie takes it to an inhuman extreme. Malorie's philosophical counterweight is represented by the character Tom. The movie subtly reveals the differences between the two characters as the plot unfolds and Malorie slowly realizes that she must embrace Tom’s philosophy of life as more than survival in order to live life well.
Throughout the movie, Malorie lives in a constant state of despair. She sees the world falling apart around her and assumes that it’s only a matter of time before she dies. In the early days of the apocalypse, this can be seen in her coldness toward her fellow survivor Olivia. Later in the movie, this detachment is even more pronounced as she raises two children. Despite being a mother to her children for five years, she never names them, referring to them only as “Boy” and “Girl.” Boy and Girl do not know her as “Mom” but only Malorie. She believes that they are all doomed and it is easier if they avoid developing emotional attachments.
This is not a new tendency for humans. The Roman historian Plutarch tells us that people have tried to save emotional pain by avoiding attachment since ancient Greece. In the Moralia, Plutarch describes a man named Thales who refused to marry or father children in order to avoid sorrow should one of his loved ones die. However, Plutarch also tells us that this philosophy is ultimately impossible to maintain, saying that the human soul has “a principle of kindness in itself…[and will] incline and fix upon some stranger.”
It is natural for humans to have affection and care for their family. If a person goes to great lengths to avoid these connections, like Malorie or Thales, that natural affection will still fix onto something else. Plutarch observes that men who live like Thales can be brought to great sorrow by things like the death of a horse. Therefore, Thales failed in his quest to live a life free of emotional attachment.
Likewise, Malorie found it impossible to live a life free of emotional attachment, falling in love with fellow survivor Tom despite rationalizing it as a by-product of the apocalypse. Tom, by contrast, has a much more optimistic view of life. He urges Malorie to name the children and delighted them with stories of his own happy childhood (despite Malorie’s opposition to telling them of things they would never experience). This tension is the one source of conflict in Malorie and Tom’s otherwise happy relationship.
Tom is a better friend, parent, and lover than Malorie because he sees value in life beyond mere survival. He wants to love Malorie well and wants the children to have dreams of happier times. He believes joy is possible and worth taking risks for. In a revealing conversation early in the movie, he tells Malorie about his time deployed overseas. The most formative experience he had as a soldier was seeing a father who walked his four children to school every day through a war zone. Tom thought it beautiful that, in spite of the violence and uncertainty of the war, this father was concerned with more than his children’s survival; he wanted his children to live well. Like this father, Tom still is concerned with living well, not just survival.
Tom’s philosophy is much more consistent with human nature than Malorie’s. We were made to pursue things that are not necessary for survival. In addition to making life more enjoyable, this is what makes us human. Animals also know how to pursue their own survival. It is their instinct and we share it. What separates us is that, in addition to having an instinct for survival, we also have the ability to improve the world around us—not only for us but also for our children. If we refuse to exercise this ability, we become more like beasts than men.
Malorie tries to live without any emotional attachment to her friends and family. She thinks she needs to to this to live, but she is actually cutting herself off from the reasons to live. At the end of the movie, she realizes that this is not sustainable. She admits that she loves her children and finally gives them names. Only then, for the first time in the movie, is she happy.