The Box is actually two movies clumsily grafted into a single narrative story line. It starts out with a provocative ethical dilemma: would you push a button that you knew would kill someone, somewhere, a stranger, if you were to be paid a million dollars? That’s the movie I was hoping to see, and to be fair, the first 30-40 minutes of the film are focused on just this situation.
But then Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) presses the button (hold on, that’s not a spoiler: the trailer already revealed that this happens).
At that point the film seems to get tangled up in an X Files storyline, where there are aliens, a government conspiracy, mind control and all sorts of goofy plot twists that ultimately ruin the movie, dooming us to an unsatisfying ending because, well, there was nowhere for the story to go.
If it were the late 1950’s, the latter part of The Box could have been a satisfying story about mind control, the dangers of conformity and the slanted portrayal of foreign leaders as coming from other planets, because how could they possibly be human and not embrace good old American values? It could have been a fascinating film in the same vein as the terrific Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the original, not the pointless remake).
Unfortunately, it’s not. To put it plainly, if you want a clean, logical storyline, this is not a film for you.
There’s a classic psychological experiment that was performed by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, where he measured the willingness of people to push a button even knowing that it would inflict an electric shock on another participant. These experiments were done in the early 1960s and the results might surprise you: 65% of participants were willing to administer a 450v shock to the “learner” if ordered to by an authority figure, even as they protested that they didn’t want to proceed.
That could have been the basis of the first, more interesting story in The Box, where instead of spending much of the first 30 minutes of the film showing us the series of misfortunes that justify Arthur (James Marsden) and Norma’s pressing need for that million dollars, it could have instead offered a debate on the morality of pushing the button: can you really set a value on a human life?
The Box also falls into a category of films that suffer from what I call The Limitless Super Powers Problem: if a character in a film has super powers, how can you logically constrain those powers and proceed with the story? For example, if Harry Potter can perform all sorts of complex magic like the patronus charm, why can’t he bring a fallen classmate back from the dead, or reverse time for a few seconds and prevent the fatal action or even presciently see what’s to happen and warn them in the nick of time?
James Marsden and Cameron Diaz contemplate The Box
It gets worse when you mix in an alien or two: If Predator is such a great hunter, for example, isn’t it inevitable that it can’t be killed, but that instead it can anticipate all attempts on its life and wreak havoc instead? Add the ability to read minds (think of Sphere or, more wittily, What Women Want) and you’ve got a complete jumbled mess.
The Box also has another problem: with the notable exception of Cameron Diaz, the acting in the film is terrible. Frank Langella, as the mysterious box purveyor Arlington Steward, is a one-trick pony with his slow cadence and looming presence and James Marsden seems to have forgotten that acting generally involves a full range of emotions, not just a detached observation of the environment around you.
Director Richard Kelly gets lots of credit in the industry for the moody Donnie Darko, but he’s still fairly inexperienced: The Box is only his fifth directing credit, and that’s spread across fourteen years. Turns out that Kelly also wrote the screenplay, based on an episode of the mid-1980’s Twilight Zone series called Button, Button. Perhaps that’s where it went wrong? Big difference? The Twilight Zone episode ends almost immediately after the button is pushed. All the alien mind control conspiracy mess was added for the feature film and it just doesn’t work.
My advice? Save your money, skip this film and spend a few minutes asking yourself the question “would I push the button, knowing I’d kill someone, if I’d get a million dollars?”