The Good: Mood, Dreamlike quality, Decent acting
The Bad: Character development ends pretty early, Incomprehensible plot events, Repetitive from Richard Kelly’s other works
The Basics: Destined to become another cult favorite for science fiction fans, The Box has serious issues on its own and in the context of Richard Kelly’s other films.
I’m not sure why I didn’t go see The Box when it was out in theaters; I certainly knew it existed at the time. I suspect, however, I saw it as a pretty obvious moral study from the previews and could not get excited about a “what would you do for $1,000,000” type psychological study. Now, having just seen it, I am pleased that that is not at all what The Box is.
Unfortunately, in the intervening years, I have come to enjoy the works of Richard Kelly. Writer and director Richard Kelly, who hit it big with Donnie Darko (reviewed here!) and had a creative triumph with Southland Tales (reviewed here!), returned to the big screen (and now DVD and Blu-Ray) with The Box. Regrettably, Kelly is turning into a one-trick pony and I am reminded of the gag, early on in The Simpsons with footage from Star Trek XII: So Very Tired, when the Enterprise encounters Klingons and Kirk’s response is an exasperated, “Again with the Klingons!” Rooted firmly in the middle, as a bit of a left turn for the film, Richard Kelly’s usual wormholes make their appearance in The Box and, by that point, the film has become just about weird enough that his fans will have come to expect them, as opposed to be surprised by them.
In 1976, the Lewis’s are woken early with the appearance on their doorstep of a package. They open it and find inside a box with a button locked beneath a glass dome. There is also a note that tells them that at 5 P.M., they will be visited by Mr. Steward. After a humiliating day of teaching (wherein an obnoxious student gets her to expose her disfigured foot and she learns her son’s tuition at the school will no longer be comped because she is teacher there), Norma Lewis returns home and soon after, she is visited by Arlington Steward. Steward tells her the conditions of the box, providing her with a key. The key unlocks the dome and gives her 24 hours to press the button or not. Pressing the button will kill someone she does not know and give her $1,000,000. After debate with her husband, Arthur, who has been working on a prosthetic foot for Norma, learns he has failed the psychological tests to be an astronaut and he begins to look ahead at a bleak future.
But, when Norma pushes the button and the family gets their $1,000,000, Arthur becomes obsessed with discovering who Steward is and what is actually going on with the “experiment.” He, Norma, and their son Walter, become embroiled in a conspiracy that stretches from Mars exploration to hive minds and existential questions made manifest in literally choosing the pathways Arthur’s life will go. With their lives and potentially the fate of the world resting on their shoulders – as it seems Steward is a harbinger of an alien invasion – Arthur and Norma resist the conditions established by Steward and the people around them to try to fight for humanity.
Or maybe not, who the hell knows? The Box is a film that, like Mulholland Drive (reviewed here!) trades on surrealism and seems to want, more than anything else, to portray a dream in the film medium. When viewed in that way, The Box is brilliant, though perhaps not quite as compelling as David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. What The Box does exceptionally well is begin the “dream” rooted very much in the rational, ordinary and detail-filled close to reality and progressively introduce elements that make it more extraordinary, weird, and imaginative. If that is the attempt, then Richard Kelly does a decent job of presenting his dream (whatwith the presence of the wormholes, that seems to be his obsession, possibly one shared by the author of the short story upon which The Box is based) and rational analysis of the film should be suspended.
If, on the other hand, The Box is supposed to be a smart psychologically thrilling science fiction film, then Kelly fails utterly with it. The Box is virtually incomprehensible by the end with the sheer number of possibilities for what is going on. Is Steward an alien harbinger experimenting upon humans with moralistic questions while enslaving entire communities around his experiments by turning them into mindless drones that he can use for fodder in teleportation experiments? Or, is Arthur trapped in an existential nightmare? Or are women just evil (in the film, we only see women hit the button) or weak? The Box, if not a dream on film, straddles the hard science and theological moral questions that have the potential to make for great science fiction, but is executed in an unfocused way that seems to trade much more on surrealism than sensibility.
Moreover, what could have been an engaging character question is quickly sublimated to a somewhat convoluted series of plot twists that keeps the protagonists engaged in figuring out exactly what the hell is going on, as opposed to actually growing, developing, or having their moral centers challenged. No, The Box quickly devolves from anything engaging on the character front into a film that has the characters struggling to figure out the plot and explain it to the audience.
On the acting front, Frank Langella is wonderful – cold and brilliant – as Steward. Cameron Diaz, unfortunately, cannot seem to decide what she wants her character’s accent to be and how much of a limp she wants to give her character. James Marsden, on the other hand, holds together The Box very well by portraying a guy who desperately wants to figure out just what is being done to him and his family.
Ultimately, though, The Box is a flop. On its own, it might be engaging, but Richard Kelly has done it before and if he’s trying a slightly different tact, he ran right into David Lynch territory. Either way, The Box is interesting, but entirely derivative.
For other works with James Marsden, be sure to visit my reviews of:
30 Rock - Season 6
X-Men: The Last Stand
X2: X-Men United
6/10 (Not Recommended)
For other film reviews, please be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of the film reviews I have written!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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