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
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 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