Film review by: Witney Seibold
O, that old moral quandary: if you could push a button that would assure you vast personal wealth, but, simultaneously, take the life of a stranger somewhere in the world, would you? Richard Matheson’s original short story (on which “The Box” is based) is, like many of his stories, a mere academic ethical query with a sci-fi twinge. The reader is asked to make a hard decision alongside is protagonists, even though, upon reflection, such a real-life decision could never actually be posited.
Richard Kelly, the mastermind behind the very good “Donnie Darko” and the bugnuts insane “Southland Tales,” has now expanded Matheson’s story into a feature film. Not content to rest with the young couple and their button-pushing dilemma, though, Kelly has greatly expanded his universe to include the motives and identity of the man who offers the button.
It is the 1970s. Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) are living in relative comfort with their 10-year-old son. She is a teacher with six toes between her two feet. He is a NASA engineer with designs for astronautics. Despite taking place at the time and place Kelly was a child, this is not a halcyon world of dreamy idealistic nostalgia, however; Kelly seems to have allowed darkness to creep about in the air in free-floating pockets of paranoia.
Our young couple begins having job woes, which corresponds with the appearance of a mysterious stranger at their door with a wooden box, complete with a jolly, candy-like button on the top. The stranger is named Arlington Steward, and played by the indispensable Frank Langella, only with a large chunk missing from his face. I’m not giving much away to say that Norma pushes the button.
It’s at this point the story abandons its fun academic ethics, and begins to delve into some pretty strange territory. People appear to our young couple, hastily whisper cryptic lines of panicked, conspiracy-laden dialogue, and then collapse into nosebleed. Steward warned the couple not to investigate the nature of the box, but they manage to find books in the local library that explain the science of the thing. Eventually we turn our focus to Steward himself, and why he’s traveling the country offering all this money to couples who may or may not push a button, and how it links to some old experiments that NASA was doing a decade ago, and why the Mars lander has been shrouded in secrecy, and why some people have been lying about their identities, and why they’ve been getting nosebleeds… by the time the phrase “altruism coefficient” is uttered, you’ll be either lost, or incredulous.
This film resembled “Knowing” in that it uses science fiction to explain the divine.
I admire the big thoughts that Kelly seems to have, and appreciate that he’s eager to share them. I just wish he could do so in a more convincing and less insane fashion. “Southland Tales” is weird and unpleasant. “The Box” plays in a smaller field, but is still heavy with the end-of-the-world rigmarole that has been a theme in Kelly’s work. Perhaps in his next film, I hope, he’ll leave the fate of the world alone, and focus on humanity instead.