"It's quite depressing, if you think of it that way."
Because 2009's "The Box" came from writer-director Richard Kelly, who made the cult hit "Donnie Darko" a few years earlier, and because he based his screenplay on a short story (and "Twilight Zone" episode), "Button, Button," by sci-fi legend Richard Matheson ("The Incredible Shrinking Man," "I Am Legend," "The Night Stalker," "The Legend of Hell House"), I had high hopes for the movie. And it does have an intriguing premise. Unfortunately, after the initial set-up the story goes downhill fast.
With "The Box" Kelly attempts to fashion a morality tale, an allegory of deep symbolic meaning and thought. Clearly, he recognized the following that built up around "Donnie Darko," with its legion of fans debating their own personal analyses of the story via Web sites, magazines, and discussion groups. While "Donnie Darko" was obscure enough in its details to encourage a healthy range of interpretations, in "The Box" Kelly practically forsakes coherent storytelling altogether with a plot that on the one hand overexplains things and on the other leaves too many events unaccounted for and too many loopholes open. The result is a messy narrative and a confused theme.
Here's the basic construct: A mysterious stranger with half his face missing shows up at your door offering to leave you and your spouse a black box with a button on top. He tells you that if you push the button, two things will happen: (1) Someone somewhere in the world whom you do not know will die. (2) He will give you one million dollars in cash (the time setting is 1976, so in today's world the money would worth five times that). You and your spouse have twenty-four hours to decide to push the button or not.
It sounds like a perverse twist on the old "Millionaire" TV show of the Fifties, where a rich man, John Beresford Tipton, gave strangers a million bucks each week to see what they would do with it and how it would affect their lives. But there nobody had to die. This time, in "The Box" Kelly doesn't care how the money affects people's lives; it's the decision to kill somebody for the money that counts. I mean, would you allow a perfect stranger to die if it meant getting in return financial security for life?
The couple in question are Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), she an English teacher and he a NASA scientist who once worked on the Mars lander project. They live in Arlington, Virginia, with their young son Walter (Sam Oz Stone). Despite outward appearances (nice house, Corvette), they could use the money. She is about to lose her teaching position, and NASA has just turned down his request to join the astronaut program. The mysterious stranger is Arlington Steward (Frank Langella, sporting some nifty CGI make-up), a soft-spoken man recently struck by lightning, who should have died in the event. Notice his name: "Steward," as in a person who attends to another person's property, finances, or affairs; and that his first name coincides with the name of the setting. You think there might be some significance in that?
Yes, the movie poses some interesting philosophical questions about the nature of our relationships to one another, to our loved ones, to others less fortunate than ourselves, and to total strangers who are, nevertheless, members of the same race of Mankind to which we all belong. Does it matter if Maude Aitkins of Fall City, Iowa, dies if she's no friend or relation to you? People die by the thousands every day; it's the natural order of things. Should we, could we, might we do anything about it? Not usually. But what if for personal gain we were directly responsible for someone's death, someone you didn't know? Isn't there a moral question here? Of course, there is, so what exactly is the movie's point? That we're all greedy, selfish beings only looking after our own welfare? That is probably self-evident without a movie telling us about it.
Norma and Arthur push the button, and their lives are never the same. Nor is the story. Even more bizarre things begin to happen. The soundtrack score by Win Butler, Regine Chassagne, and Owen Pallett gets eerier as it goes along in the rather corny manner of an old Fifties sci-fi/horror movie, probably to coincide with the Fifties tone of the whole picture (even though the setting is 1976). Then, people all over the place start acting like zombies, wandering around with their eyes glazed over. And there's Norma's strange student acting more strangely than ever. And the bloody noses. And the "No Exit" signs. And the talk of life in other parts of the galaxy. And the ominous exclamation to "Look into the light!"
Paranoia begins running wild, and the movie begins to make less and less sense before entering completely into Alice's "Looking Glass" world. Worse, the movie begins to get preachy in its second half, more mystical, and more utterly ridiculous.
The fact is, "The Box" wants very much to be a moral allegory more than it does a riveting sci-fi/horror show, but it fails on both counts by purposely being too vague, too arcane, and too self-important. It winds up being more ludicrous than meaningful.
SPOILER, SPOILERS, SPOILER ALERT
(Like a big, huge, major, kick-ass paragraph of spoilers that you should definitely skip over if you haven't seen the film or ever think you might see the film):
OK, by now you've figured out that higher-order beings from another world are directing Mr. Steward's actions, and they are testing the people of Earth to see how moral, how ethical, how compassionate we are. We all fail. But doesn't that imply that the higher-order beings should themselves be moral, ethical, compassionate entities? So, why do they dictate that humans murder one another, not just perfect strangers but their own spouses, for the sake of their inane experimental "tests"? Or is that a part of the film's message: That higher beings or even God can be cruel? As I say, sheer nonsense. End of spoilers.
Kelly shot the movie digitally, and no amount of Blu-ray high definition can make the original picture look any better. OK, I admit I am not a fan of digital shooting. I have yet to see any movie shot digitally that the filmmaker couldn't have improved by using conventional film photography. I know shooting digitally is cheaper, handier, more convenient, but no one has yet to persuade me the results are better than traditional photography. Anyway, Warners transfer the movie's original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio to disc using a VC-1 codec and a single-layer BD25.
The picture quality is almost nondescript. It isn't awful, but it isn't anything that jumps off the screen at you, either. Black levels are good, but inner detailing isn't. Long shots of city scapes look fine, but close-ups and medium shots are soft and flat. The picture is slightly gritty, glaring, smeared, and never perfectly defined. While there is no grain to speak of, there is a light veiling over the image, creating a barely visible dull sheen. Frankly, the HD picture quality is only marginally better than the standard-definition transfer upscaled.
Warners use lossless DTS-HD Master 5.1 audio to reproduce the soundtrack. We get a wide stereo spread, a few strong transient impacts, and on occasion some pleasant ambient bloom in the rear channels. Like the picture quality, though, there isn't much to talk about.
This Blu-ray Combo pack comes not only with a BD, a DVD, and a digital copy but with several other bonus items as well. First up is a series of Blu-ray exclusives: An audio commentary by director Richard Kelly, wherein he reveals his sincere belief in the film's ethical convictions; a ten-minute featurette, "The Box: Grounded in Reality," which takes us behind the scenes of NASA's Mars missions; a four-minute featurette, "Visual Effects Revealed," with making-of sequences on each of three special effects; and a nine-minute featurette, "Music Video Prequels," three of them. The extras on the BD conclude with yet another featurette, "Richard Matheson: In His Own Words," five minutes with the famous author.
In addition, the package includes a DVD copy of the movie; a digital copy of the movie for iTunes and Windows Media (the offer expiring February 22, 2011); trailers at start-up only; twenty-four scene selections; a slipcover for the keep case; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
I suppose we should have expected this kind of thing from director Richard Kelly. After all, "Donnie Darko" had aspirations far beyond its modest content. "The Box" promises more than it delivers, too, ultimately providing a muddled narrative that does nothing to convince us of its moral positions. The movie is really just dark and dumb, with good intentions visible all through its murky shadows.
"Don't think of it that way...think of it as a temporary state of being."