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THE BOX is perplexing but powerful (Review)


Never push the big red button. It's never a good idea. Things blow up, people die, civilizations end, bad guys laugh. Still, it's always too tempting to resist. The big red button is a problem for us, it seems. In The Box that button does two things: it rewards you with one million dollars and ends the life of someone you do not know. Is it worth it? It's certainly worth exploring.

Would you walk naked down Time's Square on a busy day if someone promised peace somewhere else in the world? Would you really sacrifice your dignity for those you don't know? Richard Matheson asks this in the forward to his short story, Button, Button.

These types of morality questions remind me of an episode of Radiolab, my favorite radio podcast, about morality. Below is a clip from the beginning of the show where hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich test how different people react if asked to kill one person to save many people, in two different ways. First, they ask if you'd save a bunch of people from an oncoming train by pulling a lever, killing one man, but saving five. Second, they ask if you'd push that man into the train to save those same five people from the train. The results are interesting. Check out the full show here.

I enjoyed The Box in the same way I enjoyed Kelly's previous film, Donnie Darko. I was entranced by the crafting behind the premise and style; I was completely bewildered about what actually happens; I had to work to keep up with the increasingly odd direction the story takes; I thoroughly enjoyed the perplexing plot nonetheless; and I've been combing the internet to try and figure it all out ever since. I bought the original 1970 short story by Richard Matheson on which the movie is based and even found the 1980s episode of The Twilight Zone that Matheson himself hated. Does this indicate a problem with me? Yeah, probably. I can get obsessive if I enjoy a movie. But regardless, it takes a highly competent and engaging film to inspire such Googling.

Many moviegoers want to watch films that wrap up nicely and take pains to explain themselves, and The Box is not one of those films. It revels in its disobedience. Richard Kelly lets us know it's not supposed to be a movie about answers. I may never fully understand The Box, but I'm okay with trying. 

The performances are good all around, and casting Frank Langella as the man with the plan was perfect. I also enjoyed that, unlike the Twilight Zone episode, Cameron Diaz and James Marsden play a family that has it pretty good: he is on the verge of becoming an astronaut, they live in a nice house, and have a good kid. The band Arcade Fire provides the music score for the film, I haven't listened to their music before, but I plan to check it out now. If it's anywhere close to these compositions, I've been missing out.

On the downside, there is a lot of computer generated water and it consistently looks about as good as the CGI in Spawn, but Kelly's visual creativity overpowers the shiny, blob-like water.

I went into The Box knowing virtually nothing about the film. Only after the movie ended did I realize Kelly was the director of Donnie Darko. I expected little--just some good lines for Frank Langella and a dose of morality. What I saw was a film that defies expectations at every turn: it's unpredictable and confusing, but damn entertaining. Stay vigilant and enjoy the ride.

The Twilight Zone BUTTON, BUTTON Parts 1 and 2 (I hate the wife, sheesh)

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