To start with the good news, Richard Kelly’s moody, convoluted, and unwieldy adaptation of The Box — previously a Richard Matheson short story (“Button, Button”) and a memorable episode of the ’80s Twilight Zone reboot — is definitely a better movie than his nightmare last outing, Southland Tales. So there’s that, I guess. But then again, pretty much every movie I’ve seen in the past ten years, with the probable exception of Ronald Maxwell’s Gods and Generals, is a better movie than Southland Tales.
And, once you get that subterranean standard out of the way, The Box is sadly more of the same. Pretentious, overwrought, interminable, unnecessary…The Box is just irritatingly bad at times, and it makes the original Donnie Darko look more and more like a random fluke (or, given the lesser state of the over-explained director’s cut, an actual case of timely intervention by the studio suits.) I like The Twilight Zone, I like science-fiction, I like NASA, and I like most of the other things Kelly throws into the blender here. But, after an hour in this inane, sophomoric Box, I’m sorry to report, I wanted to push a button myself — fast-forward.
If you’ve never read or seen the story before, Kelly’s version goes like this: It’s 1976, and a young Virginia couple (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz) — he’s a NASA physicist, she’s a schoolteacher — are barely making ends meet in the ‘burbs. Then, one winter night, a plain-wrapped box appears on their doorstep. Accompanying this mysterious receptacle eventually is a visit from one Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), a courtly gentleman with a horrible (CGI-enhanced) disfigurement. For reasons that are not immediately clear, Steward makes this couple a horrible proposition: Push the red button on the box, and they will receive one million dollars. Also, somebody they don’t know will die. Should they press the button? Well, it’s a lot of money, and people die every day. I dunno…would you?
That’s the basic gist of Matheson’s story (Marsden’s character does make a brief nod to the original, biting ending) and the Twilight Zone version (different ending, but still decent). But here, there’s more. Much, much more. Y’see, Mr. Steward may or may not be a visitor from another realm. And, when I say “another realm,” I could mean Mars, where NASA’s Viking probes just kicked up a lot of dust, or I could mean the Hereafter –After all, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” so the converse probably applies as well. And he can possess dozens or hundreds of people at a time, at the risk of giving them nosebleeds, and have them do things like babysit and hector people in libraries. Steward’s wife is also running around, and she, as Convert #1, presumably, can create watery teleportation doors when the need arises — like, when you want to play Let’s Make a Deal for no reason at all. Ah, yes, and did I mention there’s a follow-up corollary to the original deal? It actually has nothing to do with the “someone you don’t know” part of the equation, or, really, with anything that’s come before. But, hey, that’s apparently how we roll in the Kellyverse.
In essence, Richard Kelly here has taken an eerie and perfectly self-contained 30-minute story and overburdened it with ninety more minutes of half-baked riffs on The Abyss and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, grandiose allusions to Sartre’s No Exit and Clarke’s Profiles of the Future, and oodles of quasi-scientific Trek-speak like “the altruism coefficient” and vaguely threatening flimflam like “the Human Resources Exploitation Manual.” The end result is subtraction by addition — the longer Kelly ties himself and his characters up in nonsensical knots, the more and more ludicrous the whole enterprise becomes. (Apparently, the first cut of this film was over three hours long — baby Jesus wept.) In fact, Kelly throws so much at the wall here to see what sticks that he completely forgets about the money. Once the million is paid out, our couple locks it in their safe and never mention it again…um, ok.
Sure, there are a few moody images interspersed throughout The Box, as well as solid performances by Marsden and Langella and brief, enjoyable turns by wily veteran hands James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, and Celia Weston. (For her part, Cameron Diaz seems off.) But, otherwise, The Box is eminently missable — it would probably seem an even worse disaster to me, were it not for the lingering stench of Southland Tales. Here’s a proposition for you: Keep your ten bucks and go let someone else see it — preferably someone you don’t know.