Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Box

There are two types of people who might feel obligated to take a look at The Box, the new film starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden. First, if they're fans of director Richard Kelly ("Donnie Darko"), and second, if they're fans of Richard Matheson, the sci fi writer who authored the short story ("Button, Button") from which the movie was based. I fall into the latter category.

Matheson is known by sci fi fans as the author of some of the most adapted stories out there. "The Incredible Shrinking Man," "Somewhere in Time," and "I Am Legend/Omega Man" are some of the movies made from his stories, and he also wrote several for the Twilight Zone, including an adaptation of "Button, Button."

We know what we'll get when we look at a Matheson adaptation: a terribly intriguing idea, and no idea how it will work out. But it's always a story that draws us in and keeps us there, prisoner, until we experience the last horrific awestruck moment that will signify the end. However, in this specific case, Kelly done him wrong and has produced an unkempt, confusing mess. I urge you: Do Not open this Box.

During the 1976 Christmas holidays, schoolteacher Norma (Cameron Diaz) and her NASA engineer husband Arthur (James Marsden) find a box on their front step one day. Before the man behind the box can explain, Norma finds out that her teacher discount for her son's private school tuition has been lost, and Arthur finds out that he has been turned down as an astronaut. When the ominous stranger finally shows up, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) explains that if they push the button within the next 24 hours, they'll earn $1,000,000 in cash. However, there will be consequences: someone they don't know will die.

One of the immediate problems with the story is that they're not in bad enough financial straits to justify killing someone, even someone they don't know. They live in a nice house; he drives a nice car. They still have their jobs. Sure, their son may have to go to public school, but this doesn't send us into despair for the couple. And there's not even a lot of discussion about The Consequence. You know, of course, that the button will be pushed.

It's what happens after that that is confusing, moments with townspeople never adequately explained. Most of the situations that are set up are never followed through on. We meet people we'll never see again. I suppose that we're to think that we've opened the box and are staring at a worldwide conspiracy to penalize the lack of morality in the human race. However, nothing is adequately explained to lead us to that conclusion or any conclusion.

I believe that the problem with this movie lies with the fact that Matheson wrote a short story, nothing more. And director/writer Kelly expanded it into a creature that lumbers in many different directions at once, all wrong.

Thumb's down.


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