by Mel Valentin
Almost a decade into a filmmaking career that began auspiciously with 2001’s "Donnie Darko," a non-linear, apocalyptic-themed science-fiction drama and invited comparisons to one-time wunderkind Orson Welles ("Chimes at Midnight," "Touch of Evil," "Othello," "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Citizen Kane"), writer-director Richard Kelly, in desperate need of a commercial (if not necessarily a critical) hit after his previous film, "Southland Tales," an over-ambitious, sprawling, apocalyptic, science-fiction/drama/thriller failed to impress critics or draw audiences, is back with his third film, "The Box," a period science-fiction/psychological thriller based on Richard Matheson’s ("The Legend of Hell House," "I Am Legend") short story, “Button, Button” (previously adapted as an episode of the mid-eighties iteration of "The Twilight Zone").Set in late 1976 during Ford's "caretaker" presidency, days after the Viking spacecraft landed on Mars, The Box centers on Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz), a status-conscious, private school teacher who specializes in English Literature (she and her students are currently examining Jean-Paul Sartre's play, No Exit, a play summed up with the line, "Hell is other people"), and her husband, Arthur Lewis (James Marsden), an engineer and researcher who works for NASA at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. At the school, Norma gets bad news: the faculty tuition credit will be discontinued which will likely forcie Norma and Arthur to send their son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone), to public school (a fate worse than reform school, apparently). Almost simultaneously, Arthur learns that NASA has rejected his application for the space program. Adding to their strained finances, Norma, who walks with limp due the negligence of a radiologist when she was seventeen, needs corrective surgery.
"Whatever you do, don't press the red button. Wait, too late."
Stirred from sleep the next morning, Norma opens the front door and discovers a package wrapped in plain brown paper. Inside, Norma and Arthur find a simply constructed wooden box (someone later calls it a “button unit”). The wooden box contains a prominent red button locked under a glass dome. The package also contains a note. At 5:00 p.m., Mr. Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), will return to Norma and Arthur's house, presumably to discuss what the box is for and what it does. Norma greets a disfigured Steward promptly at five. He makes Norma and Arthur a seemingly simple offer: If they press the button, someone they don’t know will die. In exchange, they’ll receive $1,000,000 (tax free) from Steward and his employers. If they don’t press the button, Steward will retrieve the box and make the same offer to another couple. He gives them 24 hours to decide, but warns them of dire consequences if they contact the police or share information of Steward’s offer with anyone else.
Norma and Arthur's decision ends the first act (and not coincidentally, Matheson’s short story). Torn by the moral implications of their action and fears for their personal safety, Norma and Arthur do everything Steward asked them not to do—Arthur gets help from Norma’s father, Dick Burns (Holmes Osborne), a police detective—spinning The Box into a cross between The X-Files, David Fincher’s The Game (character actor James Rebhorn appears in both Fincher’s film and The Box), and an earlier generation of paranoid conspiracy thrillers (e.g., All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, The Conversation), with one or two plot elements borrowed from Invasion of the Body Snatchers thrown in for good measure. Kelly also includes shout-outs to science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, visually in a Star-Gate sequence inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, in the co-lead character's first name, and in a quote about science and magic (advanced enough and science looks like magic to lesser advanced civilizations).Less ambitious (actually, far less ambitious) than Kelly’s second film, "Southland Tales" (he wrote 2005’s "Domino" as a work-for-hire script for director Tony Scott) and more accessible than his first film, "Donnie Darko" and its ambiguity-laden, non-linear structure, "The Box" was meant to be more attractive to less demanding, mainstream audiences. The period setting, Kelly’s “slow-burn” approach to the material, action-light third act, non-sensationalistic exploration of moral dilemmas and human nature (specifically the limits of altruism, and an ambiguous ending fit for a 70s paranoid conspiracy thriller), however, won’t have mainstream appeal (the opposite, actually). None of that, of course, detracts from "The Box’s" strengths (minus occasionally clunky exposition and portentous dialogue).
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originally posted: 11/06/09 11:00:00