Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
November 2009

Split decision

'The Box' offers an intriguingly old-fashioned sci-fi tale, but can't quite get out of its own way

The Box
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Richard Kelly
Screenplay: Richard Kelly, based on the short story, Button, Button, by Richard Matheson
Starring: James Marsden, Cameron Diaz, Frank Langella, Holmes Osborne, James Rebhorn, Sam Oz Stone, Gillian Jacobs and Deborah Rush
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 56 minutes
Opened November 6, 2009
(out of four)

With three movies under his belt, Richard Kelly has already been written off by some as a one-hit wonder. At the beginning of the decade, he was being hailed as one of the most exciting new voices in cinema after his debut, Donnie Darko, became a cult phenomenon.

But his reputation has cooled, and not without reason. His Southland Tales was a wildly ambitious but failed effort that was met with some of the most vitriolic criticism in the history of the Cannes Film Festival. He also penned the screenplay for Domino, a film with a couple of clever ideas but destroyed by the fact that it was directed by Tony Scott.

Now comes The Box, a hybrid of self-serious philosophy and camp 1950s science fiction that has been greeted with a lukewarm response, to say the least. Let the Shyamalan comparisons begin.

Me, I'm not quite ready to give up on him, mostly because I see tremendous potential - if not success - in both of his last two films, however flawed they certainly are. What comes across is a filmmaker with the temerity to follow through on his own instincts and his own artistic inclinations, but without the discipline and/or big-picture vision to follow it all through. Yet.

He's certainly willing to indulge himself, even at the risk of failure. In The Box, he takes a kind of classic cautionary-tale set-up and transforms it into an exercise in pseudo-existentialism (Sartre's name is little more than name-dropped) woven into an old-fashioned, B-grade science-fiction milieu. It will not come as a surprise to hear that the story it was based on - Richard Matheson's (not Isaac Asimov's) Button, Button - was once developed into a Twilight Zone episode.

The Box, while set in the 1970s, has that same 1950s vibe. A Rod Serling introduction would not feel out of place. What you are about to see is one couple's discovery of the naked consequences of greed amid the turmoil of human disconnect, in the vast emptiness of space . . . and what lies beyond . . . .

The couple in question is Arthur and Norma Lewis, played by James Marsden and Cameron Diaz. They live a seemingly comfortable life in suburban Virginia. He's an optics engineer for NASA and she's a schoolteacher. They have a 12-year-old son named Walter.

So when Arthur Seward (Frank Langella), a deeply serious man in a deeply serious suit riding in a deeply serious, window-tinted luxury car, shows up and offers them a hideously amoral deal, they have little reason to take it seriously. He gives them a small box containing a big, fire-engine red button. He tells them that if they push the button, one random person who they do not know will die, and they will get one million dollars. No questions asked.

(Adding to the eerieness is Seward's deformed appearance - the bottom half of the left side of his face basically looks like Two-Face from The Dark Knight, only with lesser CGI.)

At first, they're merely curious - assuming it's just some bizarre prank. No way the button could possibly have any effect, right? Should they call the cops? Push the button just for fun? Throw the box away?

But then they get to thinking. And they get to realizing, they certainly could use some of that money. Arthur's career has hit a wall and Norma has run into a financial issue at work. They begin to take the box seriously - if not out of true belief, then certainly out of desperation. They deliberate. And then they make a decision.

From what I've seen and read, the film extends far beyond the parameters of both the original story and the Twilight Zone episode. Kelly moves distinctively into pulp sci-fi territory, which charmingly extends even into small details - like the naming of a key location in the story the Galaxy Motel, complete with a logo that looks like a comic-book masthead.

The discoveries we make about Seward's purpose and the purpose of this "test" extend far past our assumptions. There are sequences that display a stunningly unnerving sense of disquiet and a mood that borders on the apocalyptic. As a director, Kelly has some Kubrickian tendencies; as a writer, he has tendencies that call to mind Vonnegut and Bradbury. In both cases, it makes for interesting, if not altogether successful, material.

Where Kelly derails himself is in his inability to let his film's moodiness work on its own. He insists on over-philosophizing - like in a thoroughly useless scene where Seward explains the reasoning for the "box." The speech not only comes across as ridiculous, but doesn't even hold up with the rest of the movie.

The Box keeps building toward a grand design that we see unveiled in chunks during the second half of the film. But when we get to the very end, we can't help but ask, Is that all there is? We feel underwhelmed, and the ambiguity the film ultimately goes for doesn't really strike a chord, either.

I mentioned that the film goes further than the source material - and at least in the case of Matheson's story, that's definitely a good thing. That short story featured one of the stupidest endings I've ever heard of. At least with The Box we aren't getting cheated - even if we are a bit underwhelmed.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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