Retro Review: THE BOX (2009){0}

Wikipedia tells me that the great Richard Matheson was none too pleased with the 1986 Twilight Zone episode that was based on his 1970 short story Button, Button. And having just witnessed the certifiably bizarre Richard Kelly adaptation, I think it’s safe to say that Mr. Matheson would have absolutely loathed this version. Let’s just say the TV version was a truncated version of the original story, whereas this brand-new two-hour cinematic version is the exact opposite: It wanders off in a variety of directions that pretty much boggle the mind.

Which is probably why I liked The Box as much as I did. With a few reservations, sure, but call it fascinating or call it absurd … it’s still pretty damn watchable.

The basic story that runs through the original tale and both adaptations is this: A struggling married couple are visited by a mysterious man who carries a strange little box. They’re told that if they press the big red button on the top of the box, two things will happen: 1. They’ll get a big stack of cash ($50k in the short story, $200k in the Twilight Zone episode, and a cool million in the movie version), and 2. Someone “they don’t know” will instantly die.

One can feel the dark cleverness of Richard Matheson in this compelling little morality tale, but writer / director Richard Kelly is intent on using this set-up as just a mere jumping-off point. His contributions to the tale include A) the husband works for NASA, B) the wife is missing four toes, C) there is now a young son involved, and D) a whole lot of vague (and slightly) maddening hints that lead up to a cleverly ambiguous climax.

Much more of a sci-fi thriller than a horror flick, The Box earns points for sheer colorful audacity … right down to the bizarre casting. Sure, the background is populated by great folks like James Rebhorn, Celia Weston, and Holmes Osborne — but the pairing of James Marsden and Cameron Diaz as a 1976 married couple? (Oh yeah, The Box is a mid-’70s period piece. Another unnecessary but amusing tweak from Mr. Kelly.) That’s just weird. Both actors deliver stilted but compelling performances, and one wonders if their somewhat “artificial” chemistry was a stylistic choice made by the director. Either way, it’s certainly not boring.

But The Box goes much deeper (and weirder) than the simple “hook” offered in Matheson’s original story. Without spoiling anything important … this version deals with trips to Mars, alien invasions, and dead-eyed zombie-like drones who seem to share a hive mind of some sort. Like I said, weird and unexpected (particularly if you’re familiar with the source material), but certainly not boring. The frequent presence of Box-manager Frank Langella (as the mysterious (and charred) Mr. Steward) helps a whole lot, as he’s both nefarious and fascinating. And hell, kinda gross to look at.

After the cult smash Donnie Darko and the failed ambition of Southland Tales, Richard Kelly seems to be working as “mainstream” as he possibly can, but it’s good to see that he’s not afraid to take chances, do strange things, and use a little artistry in his bid for multiplex popularity. (A special note to the moody and effective score by Arcade Fire.) At 118 minutes, The Box is about fifteen minutes longer than it really needs to be, and its overlong running time leads to a few tonal shifts and narrative redundancies. Still, I’d much rather side with a filmmaker who bites off a little too much … than a filmmaker who’s simply interested in playing it safe.

Matheson purists will most likely hate the changes that Kelly has made, but taken as a dark, strange and enjoyably paranoid little sci-fi thriller, I’d say the good points outweigh the bad by a long shot. The Box is occasionally clunky, intermittently laughable, and consistently weird, but I’ll say it one last time: The flick sure isn’t boring.