A stranger leaves a package on your doorstep, a box wrapped in plain brown paper. You aren’t expecting a delivery, but Christmas is coming. Your sister’s getting married in a few weeks, so it could be a present for members of the wedding party. You open it. You find another box inside, a curious black device of wood and aluminum, with a clear glass dome enclosing a small red button on top. The dome is locked. If you had the key, would you push the button?
Such is the premise of Richard Kelly’s new film, The Box, though there’s more to it than that—more than strictly necessary, it turns out. Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), a loving couple with big dreams and bigger problems, are the recipients of the mysterious package, which also contains an ominous note: “Mr. Steward will call on you at 5:00pm.” When Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) visits Norma that evening, he is a charming man with a portion of his face missing, the left side twisted by scar tissue. He offers her a key to the dome and explains that if she pushes the button, “somewhere in the world, someone you don’t know will die.” In exchange, he will deliver a suitcase containing one million dollars in cash, “tax free.”
Norma is intrigued and horrified, but their family could use the money. She’s just lost her teaching job, and her husband’s application to the NASA astronaut program was rejected, which means he’ll be trapped in a job he doesn’t love. They also have a young boy, Walter, to think about. Steward gives her twenty-four hours to mull it over, and a crisp c-note for her trouble. There are a couple of other conditions: he can’t disclose who his employers are, and she can’t tell anyone aside from her husband about it. Whatever she decides, the button will be reprogrammed and given to someone else.
Norma and Arthur discuss the merits of the offer, with the black box between them on the kitchen table. Would it be considered murder? Norma suggests the unknown victim could be someone who deserves it, but Arthur counters with, “What if it’s someone’s baby?” They dismantle the box and find nothing inside. They try to figure out the loopholes, anticipating some horrible twist. Someone they don’t know will die, but Arthur cannily asks, “What is it to really know someone, Norma?” (This is a nod to the short story on which the film is loosely based, in which Arthur’s fate is sealed by that little detail.)
This is one of the central concerns of the film: people aren’t always who you think they are, and you may not even know yourself. None of us can know what motivates people to act the way they do. It wouldn’t be giving away too much to divulge whether or not they push the button, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. There are consequences to everything we do, and as much as The Box seems to be about choice and free will, it’s really about what it’s like to feel trapped with no options at all, or a choice between two bad outcomes.
The film hits the audience over the head with numerous direct references to Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, even going so far as to write the play’s title on the windshield of the Lewis’s car. Perhaps still stinging from the poor critical response to his cult favorite, Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly has abandoned subtlety in favor of easy answers and heavy-handed symbolism carefully explained to viewers. It doesn’t take a film degree to note the emphasis on television sets in the movie, displaying scenes from the sitcom Alice and The Tonight Show and commercials from the 1970s, so when Steward clearly explains all the different kinds of boxes in our lives from houses to cars to televisions to coffins, it’s a little bit insulting, as if Kelly is afraid we won’t get his clever metaphors. This is a thinking man’s movie for idiots, which leaves us wondering what the point of it all is.
The tagline of the film is “You are the experiment,” suggesting that moviegoers should wonder what they would do in Norma and Arthur’s places. But this is a difficult task when the characters don’t behave like real people. There is little chemistry between Diaz and Marsden, despite attempts to show us how comfortable they are together and how much they love each other. We should sympathize with them, but the film’s attempts to make us care about their problems only push us farther away. The basic setup of the box strains credibility, but it’s necessary for the characters to accept it with minor attempts to question its reality for the story to continue. Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law is trotted out once more: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Oddly, the film fails most by trying too hard to explain the purpose of the box, with an elaborate back story hinting at its origins, clumsily presented in expository scenes.
There is also surprisingly little conflict between Norma and Arthur, even when they briefly argue about whether they should push the button. This decision and its effect on their relationship should have been the focus of the plot, but instead we see glimpses of peripheral characters and situations, seemingly unrelated to the button until Kelly ineptly connects the dots for us. When presented with the strange button and the increasingly bizarre events that follow its arrival, they continue to go about their normal, mundane lives in suburbia. There’s a reason why stories like this usually work best as short films or half-hour episodes.
Every question that confused viewers might have is eventually addressed by the film, often at the wrong moment and with an answer most won’t like. There are twists and surprises in The Box, especially for fans of Richard Matheson’s excellent short story, “Button, Button,” or the 80’s Twilight Zone episode of the same name—but the biggest surprise is that it doesn’t work. The film fails its own experiment by trying too hard to fit everything into a neat little package instead of allowing the viewers to think outside of the box. Fans of Richards Kelly and Matheson will be equally disappointed. The subtle creepiness of Matheson’s story is subsumed by Kelly’s attempts to expand on it and one-up the master storyteller, giving the box a past and a future instead of engaging with the characters in the present. The decision to set the film in the Seventies also seems arbitrary, placing another barrier between the characters and contemporary audiences; perhaps this was an attempt to remain faithful to the story, which was published in 1970, or maybe it’s only because no one in the world today would open a strange package left on their doorstep.
Ultimately, The Box seems to be a relic of the past it presents, a simpler time when audiences had yet to see all the storytelling tricks and science fictional tropes Kelly employs (hint: he relies on almost all of them, the more cliched the better) and was more appreciative of the Twilight Zone-esque morality plays of the decade before which made Matheson famous. Like the gadget itself, The Box is empty inside; as a thought experiment that asks viewers to question their own morals, the film engages in little self-examination and settles for being an odd science fiction thriller which bears some similarities to the 1997 film The Game (which shares actor Jim Rebhorn with The Box). The test of altruism is inherently flawed: Norma and Arthur are constantly manipulated into their decisions, so the button can’t be a fair assessment of their true natures. The causality of events is also muddied late in the movie, casting the entire conceit into doubt.
So who is this movie for? If you’re familiar with the short story and/or the slightly over-the-top Twilight Zone adaptation, the movie is faithful to both to a point, and even includes a small role for Basil Hoffman, who played Mr. Steward in “Button, Button” in 1986. Its ending is quite different from previous versions—not necessarily better—so there are few spoilers there, yet it still might be predictable to many because the film is as transparent as a glass dome. Aficionados of Kelly’s films and Matheson’s work are going to be tempted to see this anyway, at least on video, but think carefully before clicking that button and purchasing tickets online.
The Box opens on Friday, November 6, 2009.
Eugene Myers is waiting for M. Night Shyamalan to tackle a remake of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nick of Time,” perhaps set in the modern day with William Shatner reprising his role. Or maybe Chris Pine.