This 2009 sci-fi horror film is written and directed by Richard Kelly (of Donnie Darko and Southland Tales fame) and is based on the 1970 short story Button, Button by Richard Matheson (he of I Am Legend fame). The Box stars Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as a married couple who are presented with a box and with a button by a stranger who offers them 1 million dollars if they press said button. The only drawback is that if they press the button someone they do not know will die. Is the price of a complete strangers life worth a million dollars, and once the button is pressed, is there a way back from the knowledge that you were the cause of someone’s death?
The question in all of the incarnations of Button, Button is, “what is it to know somebody?”, a universal question akin to what’s the meaning of life and why is South Park so funny. And this movie plays with that concept further, by tying it’s structure around the writing of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, the thought that since there is no god, no creator, in Satre’s words, “we are left alone without excuse.” Basically since one cannot explain their own actions and behavior by referencing any specific human nature, they are necessarily fully responsible for those actions. Which is basically why I’ve always enjoyed all of Richard Kelly’s films, even his heavily flawed sophomoric effort Southland Tales- all his movies deal with some form of existentialistic thought.
Anyway, the original 1970 short story was first published in Playboy (see, people can really read Playboy for the stories) and was originally adapted for the 1985 reboot of the Twilight Zone television series. The Box even has a Twilight Zone type soundtrack, the sweeping horns, the striking violins, all to leave the viewer with a sense of paranoia and dread. I was wondering how they could drag out what has always been a short story and a 30 minute television show to a near 2 hour film. I needn’t have worried, because I absolutely loved this film, and it’s easily one of my favorite films of the year.
For a director with only 3 films under his belt, Kelly has an amazing eye. The tracking shots, the camera angles, watching this film, you can really tell that the man directing the film really lives and knows a lot about films. Every shot just seems to fall into place. The Box is a slow burn though, a very slow burn, with nearly 2 hours of set-up until the payoff, but anyone familiar with Kelly’s work already knows to expect that. But it’s because of it’s slow burn that makes The Box so compelling, so mesmerizing.
For me the weak point of the movie was Cameron Diaz. She really can’t act, and the choice to give her a soft spoken southern accent, akin to Anna Paquin’s X-Men, Rogue and Sookie Stackhouse from True Blood, is a really odd choice since it adds nothing to the story and makes her character seem at odds with the world around her. And hey, Cameron using an accent ain’t helping her acting. James Marsden is a passable Cyclops and Frank Langella (who many may know as Skeletor from the He-Man move) is absolutely fantastic as always as the man behind the box and movie, Arlington Steward.
For anyone that has seen the Twilight Zone adaptation, this film acts as almost an extension of that television episode. The first 30 minutes of the film are the Twilight Zone episode, and the film continues after the episode for those wondering about the consequences, the what happened after the episode ended to the characters. The remake ending was always inferior to the original story ending, but it was the only ending that Richard Kelly could follow that would have a necessary sequel. So basically the movie tries to add to the tv ending with more of a surreal Donnie Darko sci-fi bent that comes out of nowhere, and being a fan of the Button, Button and Donne Darko, I really really liked what Richard Kelly was going for here. Sadly this film has been out for over a month now and has only grossed 14 million domestically on its 30 million dollar budget.
So yeah, all in all, a definite, “bring your lunch from home because you do not want to miss this one” rating. A sadly overlooked gem of 2009, one that I hope will find a larger audience once it hits dvd.