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Thinking Outside the Box

Earlier in the week, I reviewed The Box. However, I have some more fundamental gripes with the movie that it wasn’t entirely appropriate to discuss in the review – probably because they involve discussing several key elements of the plot which may have been regarded as spoilers for the review. So here we go…

James Marsden didn't get the film on the first read through either...

Note: This is going to be a spoiler-filled examination of the movie. So, consider yourself warned. And we’re talking big spoilers here, not itty-bitty ones.

I noted in my review that the movie isn’t half as smart as it claims to be. It cites Jean-Paul Sartre, offering numerous references (implicit and explicit) to the French philosopher. Key to Sartre’s philosophy, as far as it relates to the movie is that human beings act independently. There is no other, higher power – no creator. In his play, No Exit, he explained that “Hell is other people”. Using the example of a knife, he suggested that there is no inherent “essence” or purpose to humanity, beyond what we discover ourselves.

The key concept of the movie, however, is that Martians have arrived on earth and are attempting to determine whether humanity needs to rendered extinct – they do so by testing whether members of humanity are capable of putting the greater good ahead of their own interests. The movie makes reference to Clarke’s Third Law, which suggests that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. This coupled with biblical imagery peppered throughout the movie hints to the audience that any difference between these aliens and divine powers is elementary. Hell, they even arrive on Earth in lightning bolts, calling to mind ancient Greek myths of Zeus and such.

This is really the core of my issue with the movie. The key concept: the use of the eponymous box as a test of humanity’s inherent morality – like a twisted reflection of the sick game theory at the end of The Dark Knight – is fascinating. But Richard Kelly insists on stacking the deck. The key point on exploration of morality is “free will”. It’s only really fair to judge people based on the decisions that they make themselves – things within their power.

Keep in mind that I don’t have an issue with the fact that the aliens (the “employers” and their “employees”) manipulate the characters in the opening half hour in order to pressure them into pushing the button. It isn’t a morality test if the choice is easy. Firing the wife and stunting the husband’s career makes that million dollars very, very tempting – which makes it a tough choice. Leaving the box empty is a bit more ambiguous, as the fact that there is no circuitry inside leads the characters to take it as a bit of a joke, rather than seriously considering events. Still, no major problems so far.

The second draft didn't help much either...

However – and here we reach my first problem – why give the husband a taste of what you know he will interpret as heaven (and which, very obviously, could actually be heaven).  The key dilemma at the end of the movie – the one that really tests the “altruism coefficient” – is whether the husband will kill his wife to save their child (because apparently saving the child is more inherently altruistic than saving the mother). However, convincing him that there is an afterlife kinda takes the edge off – he knows (or is convinced) he will see her again, which somewhat negates the whole ‘test’ thing. It seriously diminishes the consequences of his actions to concede that heaven does actually exist.

And this is really nothing compared to my second major issue with the film’s climax. The central premise is that, when the person pushes the button, the last person to push the button dies. That’s grand – actions and consequences and all that. Even if we accept that there must be a causality between the two – which we must as part of the premise – the climax of the movie undermines the “free will” aspect of it all.

See, the climax reveals that not only does the last holder of the box die, their spouse kills them in a true test of humanity’s capacity to sacrifice for the greater good. Or something. Anyway, those two events – whether the person pushes the button or not, or whether the husband kills his wife or not – arguable work grand on their own, but it’s the causal link between the two which undermines the whole “free will” aspect. We see this happen twice – once when the leading character pushes the button and again when the next person to receive the box pushes the button – which leads us to believe it’s more than just a beautiful symmetry.

It can’t feasible be coincidence. What happens if the person pushes the button and the husband doesn’t shoot? Or if the person doesn’t push the button and the husband does shoot? The movie doesn’t explore either of these possibilities and – since it’d undermine the whole movie if it happened – we can assume it never does. Unless we accept the possibility that it’s a perfect synchronised coincidence every single time that somebody has been presented with the button, we have to accept a link of some kind. The fact that the button pusher is held accountable (morally) for the death suggests that it is a causal link – it’s unfair to blame someone for something that is not their fault.

So, if pushing the button causes the death, the husband never made a choice. In fact, the negative choice (to push the button and kill a stranger for cash) is cancelled out by the altruistic choice (to sacrifice your wife for your child). It’s all just a bit pointless. No wonder the Martians are taking so bloody long, every scenario knocks the score back to zero.

Of course, these aren’t the only problems (I’m a little uncomfortable, for example, with the suggestion that only women push the damn button), but they are ones which undermine the movie’s core premise and make it a deeply frustrating viewing experience.

4 Responses

  1. Great theory, it is…I was wondering when someone would get to picking this thing apart. See, I had this gnawing feeling at the end, that maybe the free will thing was just a fluke…I had invented this whole theory that there are people both against the box test and humanity’s further survival, that they were setting all these actions in motion behind the aliens’ backs. They were secretly forcing them to follow the path they always do, because they had their own agenda for earth. Or something.

    • Yep, but it doesn’t make sense – the simple fact that buttons and death coincide for two parties unaware of each other’s actions simply negates the existence of free will. Which is grand, except that’s the point of the film.

  2. I hated the whole vibe of the ending. It had an interesting premise and then destroyed the whole thing with a subplot about God.

    • I didn’t mind the “God” angle. I figured that Clarke’s Third Law explained that away as “sufficiently advance aliens” and led to the religion angle as a metaphor for humanity’s desire to better itself through the fear of an omniscient observer. Unfortunately, the movie ditches this notion about three quarters of the way through when it becomes clear that the observer… well, isn’t just observing, invalidating any exploration of human nature that comes from the premise and —

      I’m sorry, I’ve gone crosseyed.

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