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The Box

Posted by Cantankerous Panda on April 30, 2010

THE  BOX (2009)

I hate that I keep doing this to you guys, but I have been running around like a chicken with my head cut off for the past week and a half or so, which is why I have been holding out on you with my reviews. But have no fear, dear minions–I fully intend to get my ass back in the theatre and my DVDs back in my player in order to bring you snazzy little reviews for your reading pleasure!!

I watched The Box recently, not knowing that I was walking into another Richard Kelly film. For those of you who do not know, Richard Kelly was the indie wonder-child who delivered hipster-favourite Donnie Darko to an unsuspecting world. I’m not trying to dismiss Darko or Kelly’s work on that film, as I really did enjoy it and I think it was an interesting and well-made film, but if I had known that The Box was Kelly’s film I would have been better prepared and, probably, a little more wary. The concept of The Box reminds me much of the classic horror story “The Monkey’s Paw”. The Box is ‘based’ on the short story “Button, Button”, by Richard Matheson, but the screenplay is Kelly’s (which, again, would have been good to know–shame on me!). I have not read Matheson’s story, but what little I have read about it leads me to believe that it is infinitely better than what Kelly offered. I should note that Matheson’s story was also used on the Twilight Zone series, and Kelly’s film almost feels like a far too long and overworked episode.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll get the basic idea of the driving force of this story: a weird man named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella, from Frost v. Nixon, Dave, Dracula, and many others) shows up at the door of Arthur and Norma Lewis (played by James Marsden, or Cyclops from X-Men, and Cameron Diaz, who needs no introduction) with a weird box. He tells them that if they push the button they will receive $1 million (tax-free!) and that somewhere, someone they do not know, will die.

Do not trust a man with part of his face digitally removed.

Both things are clearly indicated as results of the button-pushing, which I think is essential in order to make this ploy work. There’s no moral dilemma if you think about the basics of this proposition: as I type this post, a whole bunch of people I do not know have died. I could easily say “After I write this post, someone will die”, because it’s probably true. But in order to make this at all suspenseful, we need to believe that the person in question would only die at this point because of the button-pushing. But there’s never any way for the people to know if any of the deaths they have heard about were because of their decision, so it kinda sounds like you can get away with my previous justification, but clearly that’s now how this film plays out.

This crisp $100 bill absolves me of all morality, right?

But since that cannot be the ENTIRE movie, there’s clearly a lot more that happens after the button-pressing. One things is that the couple are not allowed to tell ANYONE about the man, the box OR the money. They are also told that someone else, someone they do not know, is going to receive the box next. The implication there, of course, is that one of them or even their son could be next. Again, that’s kinda the case when I say “Today, someone is going to die.” That could potentially be you or even me, but we just don’t think it’s likely.

A car accident could take them all out at any moment, but that doesn't concern anyone...

From here, the film is sufficiently suspenseful and somewhat horrific in that “How would you react?” kind of way, until about the halfway point, when we’re hit with this strange shift from thriller to sci-fi. Kelly drags his sci-fi elements, kicking and screaming, into this film. He plays with space and time again, in the most inexplicable way that seems to have no place in this film. And his message, which eventually gets spelled out for us quite clearly by Arlington Steward, is not only tiresome but ridiculous within the context of the film. And yes, I AM going to spoil it for you because you will be grateful that I have spared you from wasting precious hours of your life.

This is how I imagine Diaz and Marsden looked after the premiere.

(SPOILERS ABOUND UNTIL THE PARAGRAPH BEFORE THE RECOMMENDATION SECTION!!!)

The Box is a tale about the greed of humans. Arlington Steward is actually an alien, who has been living in the body of a NASA worker, and he is testing humankind to see if we’re worth saving. This is all fine and good, but what frustrates me about this “message” is that the way it plays out in the film makes it so that they are not actually testing the greed of humans; rather, they are testing the morality of humans when pushed to the point of desperation. Allow me to elaborate.

When we first get to know the Lewis family, a number of unhappy things happen to them–things that have a major impact on their lives. Norma is a school teacher who gets a discount for her kid because of her job, but that’s now being revoked. Arthur was a “sure thing” for this job as an astronaut at NASA, and somehow he is told he’s not getting it. They are talking about their money issues and how they are going to work things out. Meanwhile, the person who told Norma about the deal being revoked has a nosebleed during their conversation, something that is a theme throughout the movie. We later learn that the nosebleeds indicate being under the influence of Mr. Steward’s powers–mind control, basically. Which means that the troublesome situation that Norma and Arthur were in when they were offered the box was orchestrated BY the very person testing them. That’s not a matter of greed–he disrupted their lives so drastically that they were concerned about their money and their son’s education, and they pressed the button with that in mind. This is why the whole “humans are greedy” message in this film makes me gag.

Back to the sci-fi elements, they really make no amount of sense here. Whereas Kelly did a good job of “mindfucking” the audience in Donnie Darko with the sci-fi craziness, here it feels like it’s just tossed into the mix without any real care or consideration of how it is being used. There are giant “doorways” of water that somehow transfers people to other locations… in giant bodies of water.

Anyone else think this picture is kinda hot?

There are zombie-esque people who move from town to town in order to help take part in the next “test”, which ends up being more than just about pressing the button and delves into a world of harassment and eventually forced murder in order to save one’s child of being deaf and blind forever. One could assume that this is “punishment” for talking about Steward and the box when they were not supposed to, but considering that Mr. Steward and his legion of zombies have to move from town to town in order to continue this ludicrous excuse for a Milgram experiment, that means that Mr. Steward has to hang around until the people in question open their big mouths and chat about what happened.

Always read the fine print.

And if they don’t? Well, who the fuck knows?! It’s clear to me that in this movie, EVERY couple not only presses the button, but ends up blabbing about it immediately. Otherwise, there’s no punishment (according to the terms of the deal set forth by Mr. Steward), and the experiment stops, I guess. Honestly, none of what happens in this movie makes any amount of sense, and it plays out in the most illogical ways.

Quickly onto the other nuances of the film…

Kelly clearly wanted this to take place in the 70s, and he did a good job with the colours and the ambiance. I wasn’t thrilled with his camerawork, but I was much more angry about the script, so I didn’t pay as much attention to his “artistic vision”. As for the actors, I can’t really complain there. I happen to think James Marsden is underrated and under-appreciated. I thought he did a fine job in this dramatic role. Cameron Diaz is somehow always surprising when she steps outside of her “cutesy” realm of romantic comedies and delves into something serious. She wasn’t out of her element here at all; she handled the role extremely well, and I enjoyed her performance. Their son, played by Sam Oz Stone, was… forgettable, I guess. I just realized I have no opinion of him. And Frank Langella is superbly creepy and cold as Arlington Steward. But there was one happy little surprise in this film for me, and that was the babysitter, played by Gillian Jacobs. Gillian is Britta on the absolutely hilarious show Community, and while she’s not my favourite person on that show, it was fun to see her here. And she was convincing, as well! Good for you, Gillian!

Do I recommend this film? No. Richard Kelly may have had some sort of flash of “brilliance” with Donnie Darko, but he has apparently totally lost it. It’s not just his movie-making that leads me to that conclusion: He actually helped fund the making of the Tucker Max movie (the guy who blogged about having sex with all these different women in Washington, DC, and was absolutely disgustingly horrid and chauvinistic). This movie is not a good example of a thriller, but if you like M. Night Shyamalan and his “surprise!twist” endings, then perhaps you’d enjoy watching this one.

My apologies to anyone who truly wanted to be surprised by all the “twists” of the film, but I sincerely felt robbed of my time and my brainpower when this movie ended.

Gillian demonstrates to us the negative effects of watching this film.

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10 Responses to “The Box”

  1. Skelie said

    lol, Kickass review (;

  2. Kevin said

    … Aliens? Seriously?

    Couldn’t they have just left it with a mysterious (and rich) man that was dying, and curious about human nature and wanted to see one person without greed before he died? Would have been better than… Aliens…

    ~Kevin

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      Yeah, tell me about it. There’s a certain point in the movie where all you can do is stare at the screen and go “….really?” It’s so, so bad, and it had SUCH POTENTIAL.

  3. richardsblah said

    I’m afraid we’re going to have to disagree on another movie here, Panda. This is becoming a habit. 😉

    I liked The Box. It wasn’t as good as Donnie Darko, agreed, but it was a hell of a lot better than Southland Tales, which was a great steaming turd of a movie. The Box kept me interested, the performances were first rate, and I loved where it went, with the aliens and such. It made me laugh at its audacity. I also found it less of a mindfuck than Darko, with a more direct narrative. Not a perfect movie, but very enjoyable.

    Great review, as ever, Panda. I look forward to reading them. 🙂

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      Har. Well I haven’t seen Southland Tales, but I have to say that this movie asked too much of me in terms of suspension of disbelief. I can do that, and I have no problem with just allowing movies to “simply be”, but the logic that Kelly tried to force upon me simply did not add up. That offends me, as a viewer. Like I said with Wolverine, I felt I was being treated like an idiot. None of what happened made any sense, and the “mindfuck” wasn’t satisfying because it wasn’t just so complicated that I didn’t understand it– it was so ridiculous and illogical that it didn’t make sense because none of what they claimed added up actually did. Sure, I can laugh at the audacity, but it was horribly executed.

      I will absolutely agree that the acting was pretty good, though. Honestly, that’s the only thing that kept me going. Otherwise, I probably would have abandoned it, even though I try to make it my personal duty not to walk out of/abandon a movie.

      I don’t mind the disagreements, though :P. People have their own tastes, and I’m just mouthing off about mine. I think we’ve had a decent amount of agreements in the past though :P. I’ll try to be quick with the Nightmare On Elm Street review, by the way–I know you don’t want to see it, but I thought you might still be interested in reading it :P.

  4. Cadderly said

    I purposely never looked much into this movie due to “one day I’m going to watch it”. I like to have no preconceived ideas before watching a film, especially one that is supposed to be mysterious. I finally watched it about 3 weeks ago via Netflix.

    At first, I was liking this movie. Was fascinating. I like those twisty, never know what’s gonna happen, movies. But then it turned 180 degrees. It went into sci-fi mode and way over the top! It’s like a slasher film where the bad guy dies 20 minutes in and it becomes a romantic comedy. It just doesn’t work. Not only did it go sci-fi, but nothing made sense anymore. Ug…

    Terrible movie. 🙂

    I look forward to reading other reviews in your blog.

    Good review and exactly as I thought as well.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      Thanks for the feedback!

      I clearly had a similar reaction to you about the film–it was so bizarre how it was like a totally different movie was tacked onto the first half. I don’t know what they were thinking.

      I have a number of reviews planned for the near future, but I’ve been super-busy (there’s a conference this week that I’ve been helping with, so I’m exhausted now and will be for most of this week). But check back for more, and feel free to read past reviews and comment–I try to get to all comments left, regardless of how long ago I wrote the review :).

  5. Wow am I literally the only reply to this amazing article!?

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