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April 2010

The Box

cast: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, and Frank Langella

director: Richard Kelly

111 minutes (12) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Icon DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

The Box

The Box is based upon a Richard Matheson short story titled Button, Button. Originally published in 1970, this short story went on to be adapted as an episode of The Twilight Zone. However, this adaptation - written and directed by Richard Kelly of Donnie Darko fame - owes a debt to the genre of past decades that far outstrips a simple screenwriting credit. The Box is a monument to the science fiction of the past as well as a splendid (if slightly shaggy) combination of science fiction and psychological thriller in its own right.

It is the 1970s and NASA have just landed their Viking spacecraft on Mars, beaming back the first pictures of the red planet to an excited America. The scientist who designed the rover's camera is Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) who wants to be an astronaut more than anything else. His wife Norma (Cameron Diaz) is a teacher at an exclusive private school and a devoted mother to her son Walter. Though the couple are attractive, happy and seemingly affluent, they have their problems: Arthur has just been rejected by the astronaut programme - for failing the psychological requirements, and Norma has just been told that she will have to pay Walter's school fees - forcing her to choose between keeping Walter in a private school and paying to have her hideously crippled foot repaired.

For all their middle-class security, this is a family that will soon be facing some tough decisions, in more ways than one. Enter Arlington Stewart (Frank Langella), an elegant and exquisitely polite man with a hideously scarred face. He offers the Lewis family the chance to earn one million dollars in return for the push of a button. A push of a button that will kill someone somewhere... Initially, the couple are sceptical. They think it is a joke or that Stewart is a madman. Then they start to argue about the ethics of the button and, after much soul-searching and hand-wringing, Norma pushes the button. However, Arthur is still sceptical and he begins to investigate the mysterious Stewart. What he finds is a vast conspiracy with a truly global reach.

Watching The Box is a slightly eerie experience. It is a film that feels very much like a throwback to an earlier time. Cosmetically, this might be due to the film's wonderful 1970s' set-dressing, but there is more to it than that. The Box is the kind of film that Hollywood simply does not make any more. In fact, it is a film that Hollywood stopped making in the 1970s. This idiosyncratic feel is clearly intentional as it seems to stem from the film's frequent visual and structural references to Alan J. Pakula's conspiracy thriller The Parallax View (1974).

The Parallax View is ostensibly a film about a journalist being transformed into a killer. However, beneath the surface, it is a film about the conspiracies that surround us and dominate our lives. About the huge power-blocks and special interests who pull the strings and call the shots. It is no accident that The Parallax View is part of a trilogy of films that concluded with All The President's Men (1976) an examination of the involvement of Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal.

Indeed, The Parallax View was attempting to articulate a particular worldview. A worldview sculpted by the end of the 1960s and the death of that decade's sense of hope. Pakula made this worldview tangible by embodying it in his film's modernist architecture. Bleak concrete expanses and complicated geometrical lighting rigs that dominate the film's landscape in the same way as the film's amorphous existential conspiracies dominate our lives. These same modernist structures feature in The Box alongside certain other structural similarities.

One of the most striking things about The Parallax View, and Pakula's trilogy as a whole, is how different its cinematic language is. Nowadays, Hollywood thrillers feel obliged to throw in the odd car-chase and shootout even when they bear no real relationship to anything going on in the plot. For an example look no further than Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, an intensely cerebral film, about the role played by escalating cycles of violence in the creation of failed states, that repeatedly interrupts the plot in order to show Batman pointlessly jumping off a building and blowing up cars.

Pakula's films completely eschewed such crudely engineered excitement; instead he allowed the natural rhythms of an investigation to set the pace of his films and the power of his ideas to provide the excitement. Indeed, one of the reasons why All The President's Men has not aged particularly well is because the revelation that the President is a crook no longer carries very much emotional impact at all. Back in the 1970s it was a viscerally devastating way to end a film.

The Box contains no fist-fights. No chasing. No shooting at helicopters. Instead, it relies upon its ideas to drive the narrative and provide those visceral moments of horror and excitement that make a trip to the cinema truly memorable. In fact, The Box is a film that is all about 'sensawunda' - that visceral feeling of excitement and wonder that follows a paradigm shift or a grand revelation and which is entirely native to the science fiction genre. The deeper the characters dig into the background of mysterious Mr Stewart, the higher the conspiracy seems to go and the greater the odds.

First he is just a crank, then he works for the government, then the government is involved, then the whole of humanity is involved and then the whole of humanity is revealed to be just a pawn in a huge interplanetary conspiracy with consequences and repercussions that mere humans cannot hope to grasp. In one memorable scene (reminiscent of both The Parallax View and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind) a massive hanger is opened to reveal a blinding light. This is the light of truth. Of truth barely contained within even the vastest of human constructions.

Eventually, the moral character of the conspiracy begins to assert itself. For reasons that are never made completely clear, the actions of the central characters are said to be hugely important. They are being tested and they must listen to their consciences. But at the same time, they must also obey the rules and do what they are told. This paradoxical morality distinguishes Kelly's film from Pakula's and invites comparisons with one planet-spanning conspiracy in particular: Christianity.

Stewart eventually reveals himself to be a Christ-figure. A human brought back from the dead to serve as a kind of intergalactic front man for a vastly distant and unspeakably alien intelligence that has inexplicably taken an interest in human affairs. This Lovecraftian 'other' expresses its interest by drawing a number of seemingly arbitrary lines in the sand (the film speaks of 'altruism quotients') and then expecting humanity to follow them. However, as with Pakula's conspiracies, it is never completely clear what agenda is being followed: when does the test start? What is it that is being tested? By what authority is this being testing us in the first place? Kelly's juxtaposition of religious imagery and 1970s' paranoia is wonderfully satirical, but not as satirical as the behaviour of his characters.

When the button is first introduced and revealed to be real, the Lewis family begin cycling through the kind of moral frameworks you would expect from people in their position: what if they knew the person who died? What if they killed an innocent? But what if they could provide financial security for all of their family? What if one person does die, are there not billions of humans out there? Eventually they reach a decision and Norma hits the button.

At the end of the film, Stewart presents them with another decision to make. By this point they realise what they are dealing with and their first instinct is to reject the need to make a decision... but then they realise that they have no choice. There is no way out. So they start cycling through the same set of moral frameworks despite knowing that the moral dilemma imposed upon them is both utterly unjust and utterly arbitrary. Is religion simply the process of rationalising the belief that we all have a gun to our heads?

Assume for a moment that the events depicted in the Bible are entirely factual. Assume that you are some Iron Age goatherd and suddenly Moses appears on a nearby hill. He tells you that there's a new sheriff in town and that from this point on things are going to be different. There's going to be the rule of law. Your first instinct would, quite rightly, be to tell him to fuck off. But then the thunderbolts start raining down. The plagues of boils... The rains of sulphur... Maybe then you start thinking that the rules sound pretty good after all. Suddenly, the arbitrary diktats of a trans-dimensional tyrant become an articulation of your deeply held moral principles. There is no way out and so you come to love Big Brother. Religion is the greatest conspiracy of all, doubly so if the religion in question turns out to be true.

There are two authors who are explicitly name-checked in The Box. The first is Jean-Paul Sartre who suggests in his play No Exit (1944) that Hell is being trapped with other people who know what kind of person you really are. The second is Arthur C. Clarke whose writings including The Sentinel (1948), and Childhood's End (1953), attempt to place the mythical on a mundane footing by recasting the gods as hugely advanced aliens. Combine the two sets of writings and you have the recipe for the ultimate prison, a prison whose rules are incomprehensible but whose wardens are both omniscient and omnipotent. This prison would be hell and this hell is the afterlife described by Christianity.

The Box is a hugely enjoyable psychological thriller which nonetheless feels strangely out of synch with modern times. Its abstract ideas, sedate pacing and intellectual forms of conflict resolution make it unlike most contemporary thrillers while its densely conspiratorial worldview makes it seem politically and intellectually archaic. However, while Kelly's ideas may speak to the concerns of another time there is no denying either their satirical power or the elegance with which they are espoused.

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