The Box Review
I used to enjoy watching old Twilight Zone episodes. It was a very unusual TV show - and arguably a unique one - in that every episode had completely different characters and thus a totally new cast. These days I'm not sure it could be pulled off: Studios may not back a series that does not sport a regular cast, and that seems fairly reasonable as the fans that they cater for may not be able to get into a series if it does not have a regular cast. Still, I wish it could work, because the clever, contrived and authentic science fiction stories were both cerebral and quite haunting. Only at its peak did shows like Star Trek: The Original Series manage to compete with The Twilight Zone by giving viewers a true sci-fi dilemma, and modern shows - sci-fi or otherwise - rarely pose these often bleak conundrums. It's classic Asimov, pure Phillip K. Dick, with hints of Arthur C. Clarke, and it is the kind of thing that we tend to only get in the occasional movie these days: Minority Report and I, Robot both trying to offer those cunning Blade Runner-esque twists. The kind of story where there's a guy hunting robots who, in the end, turns out to be a robot himself. Brilliant.
Button, Button was a short story written by a certain Richard Matheson, the man behind a whole series of Twilight Zone episodes and similarly good short novels. He wrote some of my favourite episodes, including the 5th season's Steel and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. The former was about a future where boxing was conducted using robots, where a trainer has to step into the ring disguised as his robot when the thing malfunctions, and is actually being remade as well speak into a potential blockbuster starring Hugh Jackman. Matheson indeed was more famously known as the man behind the novel I Am Legend (recently remade as an effective - at least for the first two-thirds - sci-fi thriller by the same name with Will Smith, but also made into the solid Charlton Heston classic, The Omega Man). Although he wrote the original story to Button, Button, he did not like the corresponding Twilight Zone episode, which interpreted his vision in a different way. And now we get a modern retelling of this classic tale by none other than the visionary director behind Donnie Darko, one Richard Kelly. So, is it any good?
Norma and Arthur Lewis are a happily married couple with a young son, living in 1970s Virginia. Arthur is a scientist working for NASA and hoping to get accepted into the space program, whilst Norma is a teacher at their son's high school. Although they are both happy in their work, money is increasingly becoming an issue for them, so when a mysterious stranger arrives at their door and offers them the opportunity to gain a cool million dollars, they are immediately interested. What do they have to do to get the money? Simple, push a button on a small box. What happens if they push the button? Someone, somewhere - who they do not know - will die.
Matheson's simple concept is extrapolated by Director Richard Kelly so that it may fill the near two-hour runtime, and he brings in plenty of new mysteries that not only look at the simple consequences to the couple's actions, but also the grander conspiracy behind the whole button-pushing exercise. The end result is a movie with a great premise, a solid set-up, and some decent characterisation and performances, which ultimately fails to deliver a satisfying explanation or conclusion. Sure, Kelly may be famous for his Darko-esque mysteries (his Southland Tales follow-up was equally confusing, and almost inexplicable to boot) and the questions over his effectiveness in this arena are much-debated, but in The Box, I think he just missed the mark.
You see, after the hour-mark, the viewer will find himself both thoroughly enthralled and totally befuddled, the story haunting, disturbing and utterly compelling. But then it all starts to go downhill. You know that, eventually, some kind of explanation will be forthcoming, but you also know that it -most likely - will not fully satisfy as a conclusion to the amazing opening gambit. Kelly takes the film to strange places: throwing in themes of life on Mars, aliens possessing human bodies and a threat to the very existence of the entire human race, but ends up only confusing the matter further. And when it gets to the final act, you realise that things are really no more cerebral than the twist at the end of the third Matrix movie - just a lot of big-word bumf designed to confuse audience members into thinking things are really intellectual. I really hate this kind of pretentious pseudo-philosophical stuff, it really gets my goat. And its Kelly's decision to devolve the story into effects-laden gimmicky sci-fi (what's with the three columns of floating water?) that is, ultimately, its undoing.
Cameron Diaz is certainly showing her age - not particularly convincing as a 35 year-old woman even though she's just a couple of years older in real life. The poor girl has either had too much work done (are those really her lips?) or has just naturally ended up this way, but she is a far cry from the spunky, zesty fresh girl that we saw in everything from Something About Mary to Vanilla Sky (one of her best performances). Her '70s wife, Norma, takes a while to sit right with audience members - although she does eventually get there, even if I don't think you ever care for the character as much as you need to for the film to fully work.
More convincing is James 'Cyclops' Marsden's scientist husband Arthur. Marsden has done far better in movies than I really thought he was capable of. After his terrible, bland interpretation of the X-Men leader, Cyclops (I mean, he's got the power to punch a hole through a mountain with his eyes, and yet his insipid whining made you totally root for Hugh Jackman's Wolverine instead) I really didn't see any hope for the guy. But with his solid enough supporting role in Superman Returns and his engaging pairing with Katherine Heigl in 27 Dresses, it seemed that maybe there was life beyond the stigma of Cyclops. Indeed there is much more sympathy associated with his logic-driven husband than with Diaz's emotionally unpredictable wife.
Of course Frank Langella's mystery man with the box is almost as important to the plot as the very box itself. I think it was unnecessary to use CG so heavily to bring his character to life (the man has a hideous facial disfigurement) as it is the only thing that detracts from his otherwise naturally strange, somewhat alien portrayal of the character. He seems so polite and gentlemanly, and yet he is such an unstoppable force of nature, delivering his lines in such a matter-of-fact way that you don't doubt his sincerity - or the fact that he has just told you that somebody has died as a consequence of your actions. There's no emotion here, and it allows for some superb characterisation, which comes to its peak in a pivotal third act scene between Norma and the mystery man.
Ultimately I think The Box fails to deliver on its outstanding premise. It can see the inherent difficulty in bringing the concept to the Big Screen: if you tell too thin a story then people will be disappointed by the anticlimax, and if you tell too grand and convoluted a tale then, well people will be disappointed by the anticlimax. Personally, I think that Kelly should have steered clear of the more extra-terrestrial themes - the Mars connection is contrived, the whole 'fate of the planet' threat is never realised at all (the viewer will never really feel that there is anything more on the line than the lives of the three family members - despite being repeatedly told otherwise) and the unnecessary special effects only take the viewer out of the movie.
Don't get me wrong - it is an undeniably interesting movie, and it will have you gripped almost throughout, desperate to find out what the hell is going on. But the fact that many of the questions are just never answered, and that many of the answers that are given just do not sit right, is both the downfall of the movie and the unfortunate trademark of the Director. He should have tried to keep things more simple, or explain the stuff that he did throw into the mix. Because as it stands, his haunting hints of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still and other sci-fi classics (as well as more obvious nods to The Shining and even The Abyss) all build things up to a level that can just never be fully realised. At its best, The Box offers up a couple of the genre's best, classic moral dilemmas - Would you let a stranger die for a million? Would you sacrifice your partner's life for the life of your child? But between the questions posed and the answers given lies a quagmire of imaginative but unfulfilled ideas that just confuse the issue. Although strangely compelling and generally enjoyable, I cannot help but feel this was a missed opportunity to realise the potential in the original, great, short story.