Since he forced his way onto the scene with the midnight movie cult smash “Donnie Darko” Richard Kelly has been a polarizing force in American Cinema. He brought a distinctly unique voice to Science Fiction, one that, for better of for worse, he expanded on with his follow up “Southland Tales.” Though these two films shared similar philosophies about time travel and alternate dimensions their structures were wildly different. “Donnie Darko” was a neat little package that, when the amazingly ending was sprung upon the audience, all hijinks previous made sense. The opposite is true about “Southland Tales.” That picture was almost an amoeba, virtually no structure, a hodge-podge of ideas and themes that was well aware of its own scatterbrained nature. Enter Kelly’s latest feature, “The Box.” It seems to want to be a self contained story with no loose ends, and at the same time an expansive head scratcher that leaves the audience digging for meaning. Unfortunately, much to its detriment, “The Box” falls somewhere in between.
Loosely based on the short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson the film incorporates both the theme and conclusion of the original story, and that of the 1980’s “Twilight Zone” episode based on the story, which changed the ending. But then it goes way farther. Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) are a young couple living beyond their means in 1976, the same year the Viking Mars Explorer sent back pictures or our closest planetary neighbor, a project on which Arthur works. They are visited by a former NASA scientist Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) who gives them a wooden box with a lone button, and a proposition: push the button and they’ll get one million dollars, but someone they don’t know will die.
It is an obvious moral question, does human life, as a general concept not a specific person, worth more than your own comfort? An interesting quandary no doubt, but in Richard Kelly’s mind much too thin upon which to base and entire feature film. He expands the film to have global significance, using the button as a test of human altruism, the consequences of failing that test being global destruction.
Like “Southland Tales” the themes explode in all directions. From Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” to extra terrestrial knowledge of the afterlife this film runs the gamut of weird, though none of the many out-there concepts is sufficiently explored. Thus without following a central concept through to its conclusion the picture comes off as slightly hollow.
The watery effects from “Darko” and “Southland” have become Kelly’s calling card, and are here as well, but still seem like they were stolen from an archived hard drive of work done for “The Abyss.” Bubbling swimming pools and free standing monoliths of water are cool visuals, but come off as hollow when there isn’t sufficient reason behind them.
The tone of the picture is a strong mix of dark thriller, and science fiction, and had the script been less, or even more, convoluted the movie would have been a success, however when Kelly indulges himself in some of the stranger flights of fancy he looses a large part of his audience. Those sticking with him are lost when he tries to reign it back in. The middle section that reveals Steward’s true plans, is interesting and there are hints that Kelly is going to shoot this somewhat ordinary concept into the stratosphere with his crazy pseudo-science and ridiculous metaphysics, but once that part is over is falls back into a moral tale and much of the previous craziness is forgotten.
Which is actually too bad. Had the picture stayed with the tone of the bizarre middle section it might not have been an attention grabber for a large portion of the audience, but might have found that niche that “Donnie Darko” did. Kelly has extensive skill as a director, in fact his films, no matter their short comings, are some of the most interesting being made these days. No doubt “The Box” is riddled with flaws, but there is a lot going on in the middle section that Kelly deserves a lot of respect for even attempting to put to film, in the environment of modern Hollywood, such strange images and sequences.
The Catch-22 of it is that if his pictures don’t start garnering a larger audience then it is a sure bet that Kelly’s unique perspective won’t get the backing of anyone who has the means to pay for the quality needed to fully realize the vision, but without dumbing-down that vision it will be hard sell to that wide audience. Either way if Kelly is allowed to make another film after this one is destroyed by critics and audiences alike he would be better served to stay away from the rehashed visuals of his previous films, and really nail down some sort of cohesive philosophy because the world is not going to tolerate his wondering ponderances of high-school metaphysics much longer.
El Luchador Rating: 2 out of 5
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)