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The Last of Us stole Netflix’s Bird Box Barcelona’s thunder

Their stories feel mighty similar, but one is much more satisfying

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A blindfolded woman (Georgina Campbell) clutches a blindfolded blond child in closeup in Netflix’s Bird Box spinoff Bird Box Barcelona Photo: Andrea Resmini/Netflix
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

As a horror movie, Netflix’s Bird Box spinoff Bird Box Barcelona faces some stiff competition for its particular niche. While the original Bird Box, which made Sandra Bullock a bona fide Netflix star, may have actually benefited from dropping later in the same year as the remarkably similar hit The Quiet Place, Bird Box Barcelona arrives five years later after a wave of horror stories with similar dynamics — The Last of Us chief among them. And while the new film expands the world of Bird Box in some small but intriguing ways, it’s hard to watch it without hearing the echoes of all the other recent stories where a beleaguered dad type tries to protect a preteen kid in a post-apocalyptic world packed with low-level but profoundly lethal monsters.

Bird Box Barcelona takes place at roughly the same time as Bird Box, but follows what happens in Europe when mysterious monsters arrive and society collapses. (It also leaves all the Bird Box characters behind, and has nothing to do with Malorie, the sequel to the Josh Malerman horror novel that the first movie adapts.) Just as in Bird Box, a wave of sudden violent suicides heralds the arrival of creatures that most people can’t bear to look at — one glimpse of them causes psychosis, and for most people, immediate self-destruction. (Like Bird Box, the new film takes the extremely wise tack of keeping those creatures entirely off screen.) Survivors, including widowed engineer and father Sebastián (Mario Casas), wear blindfolds or blacked-out goggles if they have to go outside to forage in the nearly deserted city.

And like Bird Box, the new film mines plenty of anxiety out of the specter of people having to contend with unknowable monsters while blind, and plenty of horror out of the inventive, grotesque ways they kill themselves if they do spot one of the creatures. As Sebastián and his daughter Anna (Alejandra Howard) wander through the wreckage of Barcelona, the people they meet are suspicious, on edge, and sometimes outright violent.

(L-R) Gonzalo De Castro as Roberto, Georgina Campbell as Claire, Mario Casas as Sebastian, Naila Schuberth as Sofia in Bird Box Barcelona. Photo: Andrea Resmini/Netflix

Like The Last of Us, like the first Quiet Place, like Sweet Tooth or The Road or parts of Station Eleven and The Walking Dead, even like The Mandalorian, Bird Box Barcelona focuses heavily on the emotions of a dad figure straining to be responsible and capable under extraordinary circumstances that repeatedly threaten a young charge. The dynamic in this movie starts to feel awfully familiar, especially when the film itself centers on the same events happening over and over: Characters flee the creatures, are exposed to them anyway, and die in grotesque ways.

Bird Box Barcelona adds a few new key wrinkles to the original film’s formula. Screenwriters David and Àlex Pastor heavily imply that the monsters (described by various characters as angels, aliens, or something else entirely) are actively malign and capable of deceiving human minds, and that they’re somehow invested in whether people die. The new movie also spends more time than Bird Box on exploring “Seers,” the comparatively rare people who react to the sight of the creatures not with suicide, but by becoming obsessed with looking at them — and forcing every other survivor they encounter to look at them too, regardless of how many die.

All of which leaves Bird Box Barcelona with a message that’s also familiar from an awful lot of post-apocalyptic stories: Maybe humanity is the real monster. And maybe, the film suggests, not being able to trust other people is as frightening and tragic as not being able to trust your own eyes.

Casas’ performance as Sebastián is well textured, and it’s easy to buy into his frustration as he navigates an unsafe world with a daughter he loves. But even so, there’s a “been here, done this” quality to everything that happens in Bird Box Barcelona that doesn’t just come from the way it echoes the original Bird Box. That movie has far more of a sense of discovery and mystery. As the protective parent trying to keep her kids safe, Malorie (Sandra Bullock) came with some unusual quirks, as a woman so determined not to have unrealistic expectations about her kids’ survival that she refused to give them names. Sebastián has his own major wrinkle that drives the movie’s drama, but it still doesn’t give him much advantage in a sea of similar characters.

Joel (Pedro Pascal), Ellie (Bella Ramsey), Henry, and Sam crouching behind a car Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

Considering how much space The Last of Us had to tell its story, given the expanded palette of an entire TV season to develop its grieving father figure Joel (Pedro Pascal) and his complicated relationship with his prickly daughter figure Ellie (Bella Ramsey), it’s no surprise that the show does a more compelling and memorable job with similar characters and emotions. The Last of Us has other advantages as well — the unseen Bird Box monsters are mysterious and ineffable, but The Last of Usmushroom zombies are more visceral, more variable, and creepier. Where The Last of Us had room to develop memorable side characters, Bird Box Barcelona’s supporting cast are mostly disposable victims.

None of this may matter to fans of the original Bird Box, still one of Netflix’s most-watched English original releases of all time. For people who just want more stories told in this world, and don’t mind leaving Bird Box’s initial characters behind, the spinoff’s small mysteries and shocks may be enough to occupy a Friday night or a lazy Sunday afternoon.

But for people who want more depth out of their sad-dad-found-family horror stories, The Last of Us is already out there. Bird Box Barcelona just feels a little late to the game.

Bird Box Barcelona is now streaming on Netflix.