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Non-Review Review: The Box

I have an offer to make. If you push the button, two things will happen. First, someone, somewhere in the world, whom you don’t know, will die. Second, you will receive a payment of one million dollars. You have 24 hours.

“Arlington Stewart”

Such is the premise of The Box, a movie based on a short story by science fiction icon Richard Matheson, but one of the movie’s many problems is that director Richard Kelly apparently doesn’t find that premise interesting enough to sustain his film. That seems inherently pithy, considering that Matheson’s story Button, Button has been adapted for The Twilight Zone and as a radio play for CBS Mystery Theatre – there must have been something there. Instead, Kelly uses the eponymous box as a jumping off point into what can only really be described as “abstractsville”, taking a left at “crazy town”. There are moments in this film which work, but they are few and far between – there are large stretches of time when it is just infuriating.

James Marsden counts up the box office receipts... they aren't good...

The moral dilemma at the heart of the film – would you take an action that would kill somebody you didn’t know or care about if it was to your financial benefit? – is an interesting one. In fairness, the movie acknowledges it as such, but has to invent a roundabout way of saying it (something about “an altruism coefficient”), because exploring it directly would apparently be too easy, or boring… or something. I don’t know. So, the movie teases us with an interesting little question which says a lot about the relationship between the individual and society and then… doesn’t engage with it.

The movie’s premise and trailer would have you believe that there’s a lot of soul-searching done by the two leads, a young husband and wife presented with the mysterious box, on whether or not they could indirectly kill another human being. Instead – without spoiling anything – the movie makes it a relative non-issue. We’re far more interested in crazy conspiracies and weird special effects to deal with… well, what would appear to be the point of the film. The movie zig-zags a lot as our family attempts to discover who is behind this whole “box” dealio and what their sinister purpose is. Trust me, that sentence makes it sound a lot more exciting than it actually is.

Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of great interest and – dare I say it? – greatness contained in the movie. The design, full of bright primary colours and goofy fashion sense is fun to watch. Some of the moments that Kelly lines up are suitably unnerving. Frank Langella is made of awesome as “Stewart”, the man ferrying the box about. There’s even hints of a relatively sophisticated philosophy flowing through the movie, particularly when some asks him why he uses a box.

Unfortunately, these sequences are few and far between. That interesting philosophy that I suggested above would be a whole lot more interesting if Richard Kelly could decide what he wanted it to be. The movie ties itself up in knots, contradicting itself several times – particularly on the notion of free will (which, it suggests, is kinda important in the whole affair). It cites Jean-Paul Sartre, but in aclumsy sort of way, like a name-dropping college student trying to make themselves seem more learned (for example, the words “No Exit”, the work from which “hell is other people” derives, is scrawled on a windshield at one point). The movie attempts to evoke Sartre, but ultimately seems to contradict him – without spoiling anything, the characters here very much have “an essence” from a higher power. It may not be “the creator”, but there is a higher power present, giving actions meaning.

Most of Kelly’s set pieces collapse on sheer “narm” factor. I’m sure that crowds of weird people stalking our leads around a library are meant to intimidate us, but at times it looks downright comical. At it’s best, the movie evokes a sort of a hokey fifties or sixties science-fiction schlock fest (and that’s where most of its trappings belong – from the “Galaxy” motel to the water-based special effects), but lacks the kind of modest charm that these films had. Self-importance doesn’t necessarily suit the film – it certainly doesn’t justify its own sense of importance.

Perhaps spurred on by the failure of Southland Tales in the wake of his success with Donnie Darko, here Richard Kelly seems pushed to explain what the hell is going on. Maybe he was afraid of being labelled a director who favoured questions over answers and being considered a one-trick pony, but – strangely enough – his careful attempts to reasonably and rationally explain what is going on strongly undermine elements of the plot that he doesn’t explain. When he goes to great care to explicitly outline what Stewart’s angle is, it only draws attention to various other seemingly random stylistic touches. I’m not suggesting that he shouldn’t have offered an explanation for what was happening – in fact, I’m fairly sure there’s a good and interesting movie somewhere in the idea he suggests – but that it makes the more unexplained (and, perhaps, unexplainable) bits of the plot even less comprehensible.

It doesn’t help that Cameron Diaz isn’t really cut out for this kind of role. She’s arguably even weaker here than she was in My Sister’s Keeper, as she struggles not only with a dodgy script, but a weak Southern accent. James Marsden is actually pretty okay, but he has very little to work with. As mentioned above, Langella is really the only actor doing anything really worth watching, but the special effects rendered on the burns to his character’s face tend to vary a lot between “really impressive” and “pretty crap”.

I kinda want to discuss the movie a bit more, perhaps discussing the ending – maybe I’ll do so later in the week with a spoiler-filled discussion. Then I can really start hammering home what I didn’t like and what made me feel more than a bit uncomfortable.

In the meantime, it’s a bad movie. I’ll concede it has some interesting ideas, but they’re easily lost amidst a wandering plot and obscure imagery and pointless tangents. It’s a shame.

UPDATE: I incorrectly originally stated that there were TWO adaptations of the story on The Twilight Zone. There was actually only one. Thanks to Matthew Bradley for pointing it out.

12 Responses

  1. Enjoyed—and largely agree with—your analysis of THE BOX, but am puzzled by your reference to TWO adaptations of “Button, Button” on THE TWILIGHT ZONE. I’m only aware of the Peter Medak one from 1987. Although THE BOX came out too late to be included, you can read about the rest of Matheson’s film and television career in my forthcoming book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN.

    • Sorry, you are of course correct. I did a bit of digging to see where I got the impression – it was actually also a (loosely adapted) CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. I shall update the article. Apologies!

  2. I liked the first half-hour, but then the water started in and my heart dropped. Richard Kelly really seems incapable of straightforward storytelling.

    Not that I didn’t like it. A second time around, it might actually be cool.

    • I don’t know. I might watch it again when it comes to Sky Movies, but my hopes aren’t too high of a reappraisal.

  3. From “Frost/Nixon” to “The Box” — oh, how Frank Langella hath fallen.

  4. I’m still on the fence whether I want to see this or not, despite my affinity for James Marsden.

    Anyway, I tagged you for the Versatile Blogger Award: http://wp.me/pxXPC-1Cf … and added you to my blog roll 🙂

  5. Thanks. If you’re interested in THE RICHARD MATHESON COMPANION, which was a limited edition from Gauntlet Press, there is also an updated (and more affordable) trade edition from Citadel called THE TWILIGHT AND OTHER ZONES: THE DARK WORLDS OF RICHARD MATHESON. It contains the most complete documentation ever compiled of Matheson’s multi-media career…but not, alas, that radio adaptation! 🙂

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