The Box Review

It’s a simple question with a not-so-simple answer.

If someone asks you to command the death of another human being you don’t know for a million dollars, would you do it? It’s not a question of options, smarts or assessment. It is a yes-or-no morality that has only one answer. You either place high value on a stranger’s life, or you don’t.

This is the question that drives the story in The Box, a movie by Donnie Darko writer/director Richard Kelly and based on a short story by Richard Matheson that casts a very harsh judgment on humanity. In Langley, Virginia, the year 1976, NASA scientist Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) and his wife Norma (Cameron Diaz) are visited by a stranger named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), who gives them a box with a button inside. Push it, and they’ll receive one million dollars, but somebody they don’t know will die. While this sounds like the beginning of a conspiracy thriller—and for the first 20 minutes or so, it is—it quickly beams up into the chilling realm of possessed husks, mysterious dimensional portals and mad science. In a word: awesome.

There are two endings to this story that are known to science-fiction fans. One is of course Matheson’s own, where the twist is that the couple never really “knew” each other. The other is from an episode of The Twilight Zone, where another couple is given the box with implication that the Lewises will be their victims. The movie gives nods to both, but then takes off on its own path. Matheson’s story is an examination of human relationships, while the Twilight Zone episode is a story of retribution. Kelly aims even bigger, looking at it from a global social perspective. He takes a few cues from French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, whose play No Exit is referenced in the movie, by confirming that “Hell is other people,” making the box in which we torture each other Earth itself. This film is all about taking hypothetical situations and making them literal, in order to remove all context of life and boil it down to black or white. What do you value more?

Maybe that’s a simplistic way to look at life, but it does make it easier to assess society’s materialistic priorities, which we see in the Lewises. The family is pressed for money, but Arthur drives around in a luxurious Corvette. Leaving a Christmas tree lit overnight is a fire hazard, Norma points out, yet Arthur wants to anyway because it appears more festive. It has to be deliberate that the story is set during Christmas with a wedding involved, and certain attention given to gifts and job ambitions. The film doesn’t make big statements about any of this; they just permeate throughout.

Imagine Michael Haneke and Arthur C. Clarke writing an EC Comics issue together, and you’ll have The Box. It’s a unique film because even though it continues on after the button is pushed, philosophically speaking the film’s conclusion has already been reached long before the story is over. It doesn’t matter what happens to the characters afterwards. As soon as they push the button, the verdict is in: humans are an ugly, selfish bunch and we all deserve to be wiped out by Roland Emmerich.

Richard Kelly has taken Matheson’s ethics quandary and takes it to a metaphysical, astral, hard sci-fi levels obviously inspired by the works of Arthur C. Clarke.  The Box contains as many references to Clarke as Southland Tales to the works of Phillip K. Dick. The main character shares his name, the son collects Astounding Science Fiction, there’s a direct homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey in the middle of the film, and Clarke’s third law of prediction seems to be the foundation of which The Box’s world is built upon:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

And so the film is littered with bizarre happenings that cannot be explained by logic or our current understanding of technology, resembling the magical. Don’t be surprised to be a little confused by it—that’s its entire appeal. In typical Richard Kelly fashion, he doesn’t explain away the how or why of everything that transpire in this film, but he still leaves you with the understanding of the points he’s making.

This is not the mainstream genre film it appears to be at first, but a methodical litmus test for existence. Despite a few clunky executions, The Box is the kind of existentialist science-fiction movie that we desperately need to see more of.

"The Box" opens November 6, 2009 and is rated PG13. Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi. Directed by Richard Kelly. Written by Richard Kelly (screenplay), Richard Matheson (short story). Starring Frank Langella, James Marsden, Cameron Diaz, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne.

Nov
06
2009
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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