Box, The (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images.
Length: 115 minutes
Grade: DD+DD(B)=D
Budget: $30 million
Box Office: $27 million (15 U.S., 12 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: Richard Kelly (Southland Tales, Donnie Darko), based on a short story by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Stir of Echoes, What Dreams May Come, Somewhere in Time, and lots of Sci-Fi/Horror TV)
Starring: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, and Frank Langella

A young NASA scientist and his teacher wife are offered a deal by a mysterious man that if they will simply press a button on an odd device, a total stranger will die and they will be paid 1 million dollars. Things become significantly more complicated after they decide to do so.

Entertainment Value: D is for Donnie Darko.
The director of that cult classic (not in my opinion at all) has struck again with a movie that can only satisfy those who like to be dissatisfied and draw enjoyment from their frustration. Sadly, my wife actually tried to talk me out of this for exactly the fact of him as the director. “No, no,” I said, “This has Cameron Diaz and Frank Langella and it’s a really cool plot concept. It won’t be that bad.” In truth, Andrew should trust his wife more. The basic problem here is that the movie never delivers anything you hope it might, even at the very end. This is a short story (perfect for an episode of the Outer Limits or the Twilight Zone) without enough depth to make a whole movie, and especially after you strip off all the extraneous weirdness, there’s very little actual plot here. What makes this all the more tragic is that the basic idea of the movie is brilliant, and given the dearth of great ideas in Hollywood (witness the abundance of disappointing remakes and sequels), the only thing I despise more than a bad movie is a bad movie which ruined an idea that could so easily have been made into a great movie. I mourn here for what could have been, much like watching Click, for instance.

Superficial Content: D+
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity A-, Violence D, Language C+
There are a few scenes of moderate alcohol consumption and casual smoking. There is virtually no sexuality. Language is fairly light. The movie would easily be PG except for violence and overall creepiness. Several people are killed, including a man shooting his own wife. A child is depicted as having been made blind and deaf. People bleed from the nose from some sort of mind control device. Think Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the general tone here. I wouldn’t let young kids watch this, but teenagers are probably fine, although I can’t say there’s much point in letting them watch it. PG-13 is probably right, but R-15 seems a bit safer.

Significant Content: D
There are some semi-decent themes here, such as that all actions have consequences and that the basic question of morality is whether you will deny your own personal benefit for the sake of other people to whom you have no attachment. But even all of that isn’t enough in my mind to eliminate the overall worldview being presented here. Not only is there no God or opportunity to pray to Him for guidance, but the place of God is occupied by mysterious forces (probably Martians) who are carefully orchestrating every part of our lives for their moral evaluation tests. This means that ultimately, salvation is up to us, even though it’s on their terms. As such, this is mostly just a stranger version of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Artistic/Thought Value: D(B)
The split grade here is because, while I think the premise of this movie is quite brilliant and therefore stimulates plenty of discussion, the actual execution of that idea into the movie doesn’t deserve anything like a high mark. I actually started writing down all the strange events in an effort to keep them all in mind toward the end when I expected the resolution. But later, when I started to suspect no such payoff was coming, I just gave up. At least I saved that effort. The one part of the movie which had the most potential was the use of No Exit as a theme springboard, but the whole basis of that play was the direct interactions with other people, not the distant impact our choices have on them. So as overt as that use was, I felt it was a serious misfire here.

Discussion Questions:
~In what sense do our lives always depend on other people not being willing to kill us? Is it fair to say that this is constant altruism, or is it just fear of the consequences on their part? If you believed your neighbors believed they could make a million dollars by killing you, how secure would you feel about your safety?
~Was it reasonable or naïve for Norma and Arthur to really believe that they could kill another person with no personal consequences to themselves?
~Would you say the consequences in this movie to them were just?
~Is Arlington Steward at all responsible for their actions, or is he just the man who gave them a motive and the illusion of no personal risk? What if he hadn’t been behind all the other circumstances which made them more desperate just before he gave them the box? What role did the $100 bill have in influencing them?
~How many people do you think would take this deal? How much would willingness be affected by having to actually see the victim or do something you believe is causally connected to their death? Are there any relevant similarities between their choice and the actions of executives of companies who disregard safety concerns about their products?
~How hard is it to talk yourself into staying content with circumstances you were willing to accept prior to some new opportunity which entices you? Consider some other scenarios like this, such as turning down an affair when the adulterous person approached you or a sudden discovery of a way to steal from your company. What do you make of the fact that we all find it easier to say no to things we aren’t really in a position to take anyhow? Why do we tend to believe we would do the right thing in a moral test? Why is such moral self-deception so dangerous?
~Do you think Norma’s deformity had anything to do with her being selected for the experiment? Is it possible the doctor who damaged her foot was actually part of it all from the beginning?
~The play No Exit is clearly intended as a thematic source for this movie, and the point of that play (simplistically) is that hell is the presence of other sinful people. Is that the point of this movie? Is there a point in this movie? Is this movie about Purgatory, as one character later asks?
~When Norma talks about loving Arlington because of her own experience of deformity, do you believe her? Why does this empathy seem to count for nothing with the experimenters?
~The quote from Arthur C. Clarke was that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What does that mean? What things in your life should you describe as magical from your own knowledge perspective? What does this quote have to do with the movie?
~If you were in the kitchen with Norma and Arthur, what advice would you offer them?
~Did you want to see them push the button or not? What does this say about you? Would you have wanted to see them push the button if it had been a real event?
~What theological significance is there to the fact that the button can’t be unpushed?
~What do you make of the stylistic contrast between the box and boxiness of the human world and the fluidity (water) of the experimenters’ world and technology?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The decision to push the button.
~The dilemma with their child.
~Various creepy scenes like at the library or the motel.
Overall Grade: D
A great idea for a movie given to exactly the wrong director. However, those who loved Darko or Southland Tales will likely love this. Probably the same people who enjoy Lost, I suspect. As a side note, I think there should be a general rule against trying to convince an audience that Cameron Diaz speaks with a Southern drawl. She doesn’t, and no one can plausibly believe her character when she does.

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