The Box (2009) / Sci Fi-Thriller

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images
Running time:
115 min.

Cast: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, Sam Oz Stone
Director: Richard Kelly

Screenplay: Richard Kelly (based on the short story, "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson)
Review published December 19, 2010

Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly directs this "Twilight Zone"-ish science fiction thriller (no surprise that Richard Matheson's original short story had already been adapted into a "Twilight Zone" episode in the mid-1980s), although this take will not likely result in the cult fervor that so popularized his 2001 work.  If only it didn't smack more of a recent M. Night Shayamalan outing than it does Rod Serling through self-importance, overcooked ideas and overly simplistic plotting it might have stood a chance at being a decent morality tale, rather than one of the more tedious films of the year. 

In the film, set in 1976, a Richmond, Virginia couple, a technician from NASA named Arthur (Marsden, 27 Dresses) and his teacher wife Norma (Diaz, What Happens in Vegas), receives an enigmatic box from a mysterious stranger, Arlington Steward (Langella, Frost/Nixon), with a large button on it.  They're told that they have 24 hours to decide if they want to press the button or not.  Pressing the button will result in their gaining a million dollars, but will also cause the death of someone, somewhere, that they don't know.  With Arthur not getting the big job at NASA and Norma unable to get that faculty discount to help their son gain the education she seeks for him, that money sure would come in handy.

As this is a short story stretched to accommodate a feature length film, The Box suffers from that which so many other films of its ilk succumb to, which is that there isn't enough meat to sustain the amount of time spent.  Due to this, The Box works best during the points that the premise of the film is being built and a good deal of mystery surrounds the box and Steward's motivation.  As more of the plot is revealed, the less appeal the story has, not only due to the lessening of the mystery, but also that the explanations behind them (revealing them would constitute spoilers, so I'll refrain) are laughable.  The final half hour of the film has our protagonists jumping through many hoops built on cosmic mumbo-jumbo that few in the audience will buy into, with problems compounded greatly by the fact that the film sorely lacks an adequate resolution to all of the hubbub.

Marsden delivers a better-than-the-film performance, and Langella commands attention with his deliberate and sometimes ominous ease (a permanent CGI wound renders a good part of his face missing for reasons that aren't adequately explained).  Diaz is adequate during early scenes that don't particularly require great range, but her lack of believable emoting during the film's most gut-wrenching moments toward the end that makes it feel phony and implausible.  Not that Diaz is truly to blame, because it is hard to imagine anyone making the decisions made by her character remotely within reason.  Kelly had the chance to tie in the story to the "Fall of Man" account in the Book of Genesis, whereby a man and woman are put into a similar moral dilemma, but would rather direct the screenplay's allusions to the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Arthur C. Clarke.

The Box is a hybrid science fiction/horror/thriller that evokes the paranoia of the films made during the time the story is set, the 1970s, mixed with that of the pulp sci-fi stories you'd find in the movies and magazines of the 1950s.  However, it fails to deliver true paranoia due to its inherent silly development, shaky explanations, and actions performed by thinly defined characters who often seem to make decisions solely to push forward the plot Kelly has in mind, rather than what any true human being put into such a predicament might do.  Kelly goes for broke, and the film ends broken, with the audience left scratching their heads as to why they spent nearly two hours trying to follow such a shaggy dog story.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2010 Vince Leo