This Richard Matheson adaptation is stupid as shit and a deserved bomb, but it’s not entirely without interest, being one of the looniest big studio releases of all time. THE BOX was the third feature by writer-director Richard Kelly, who scored a cult hit with 2001’s DONNIE DARKO. His second effort SOUTHLAND TALES was a notorious bomb (albeit an interesting one), and THE BOX, Kelly’s attempt at fashioning a mainstream hit, follows suit, even if does feature stars like Cameron Diaz, James Marsden and Frank Langella in lead roles. Released in November of 2009, its reception was even worse than that of SOUTHLAND TALES, with the “Cinemascore” that measures audience reactions claiming American moviegoers gave the film a F.
THE BOX was based on the 1970 story “Button, Button” by the great Richard Matheson. It’s about a couple who receive a weird box with a button that when pushed will cause somebody to die; the couple are promised a large sum of money if they push the button. Matheson unwisely gave Richard Kelly his blessing to run wild with the tale, and that’s just what Kelly did.
Nora and Arthur Lewis are an anything-but-typical 1970s suburban couple: she suffers from a mutant foot caused by a teenage accident while he’s a NASA scientist who wants to become an astronaut. The two are awakened by a knock on their door late one night. On their doorstep they find a weird box topped by a transparent dome enclosing a large button. The following day an old guy named Arlington Steward turns up sporting a nasty (and patently fake) open wound on his face. He tells Nora that if she or Arthur push the button on the box some unknown person will die, and that they’ll get a million dollars. Arthur opens up the box and discovers there’s nothing inside it. Nonetheless they take Arlington’s proposition seriously, and, after a discussion about the pros and cons of pushing the button, Nora does so. Sure enough a stranger is killed, a woman living in a big city brownstone, and Arlington shows up at the Lewis’ home with a million dollars in cash.
From there weird things start happening: people around the Lewises start inexplicably flashing peace signs and saying things like “look into the light.” The Lewises also keep getting contacted by Arlington, who always seems to know precisely where they are and what they’re doing.
And things only get weirder. Investigating the NASA library for info about Arlington, Arthur meets a librarian who identifies herself as Arlington’s wife. She ushers him into some kind of inter-dimensional portal that deposits him in his own bed.
It’s revealed that Arlington is a former NASA scientist who was struck by lightning on the day of a Mars landing. He died but came back to life endowed with an alien intelligence, and as such is now conducting experiments to reveal humans’ capacity for empathy (or something). If we fail the test Arlington’s Martian superiors will destroy the Earth.
This doesn’t stop Arlington from showing back up at the Lewises’ home to offer them another deal. It seems their young son has become blind and deaf; if they want him to regain his sight and hearing Arthur will have to shoot Nora in the heart, just as someone else pushes the button on the box.
Clearly Richard Kelly needs to expand his range, as the science fiction-tinged convolutions that defined DONNIE DARKO and SOUTHLAND TALES make for an awkward fit with THE BOX and its elegantly concise Richard Matheson-inspired premise. The first 40 or so minutes are fairly strong in the manner of an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE (as indeed the story was adapted for in 1986), but the remainder of film goes completely mad in an impossible-to-follow riot of inter-dimensional gateways, alien invasion and a lot of excess silliness. Not that THE BOX doesn’t have its share of problems otherwise, from the ludicrously overdone seventies décor to the thoroughly unconvincing CGI wound on Frank Langella’s face to the inexcusable faux southern accent affected by Cameron Diaz.
Yet the film is not completely worthless. For all its clumsiness, it has a genuinely visionary arc that not too many American filmmakers these days are willing to attempt. Richard Kelly stands virtually alone among his contemporaries in his willingness to explore the type of big ideas that obsessed the Greeks but aren’t exactly in favor in today’s Hollywood. True, Kelly could have found a better a way to express those ideas than this ridiculous movie, but the fact that he even made such an attempt gives him a definite leg up.
Director: Richard Kelly
Producers: Sean McKittrick, Richard Kelly, Dan Lin
Screenplay: Richard Kelly
Cinematography: Steven Poster
Editing: Sam Bauer
Cast: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, Sam Oz Stone, Gillian Jacobs, Celia Weston, Deborah Rush, Lisa K. Wyatt, Mark Cartier, Kevin Robertson