Title: The Box (2009)
Director: Richard Kelly
Stars: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Cameron Diaz
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” - Arthur C. Clarke
Arthur C. Clarke is one of my favorite science fiction authors; I’ve read most of his books and enjoyed them. Many of Clarke’s works focus on how amazing, vast and unexplored the universe is. He also addresses -many times through out his body of work- the issue of the existence of God and the validity of religion. He was quoted saying that he was fascinated by the concept of God. So it came as no surprise to me that Richard Kelly’s new film The Box based a lot of the films ideology’s and logic in the famous Arthur C. Clarke quote that is posted above.
This films premise is not really as complicated as some make it out to be. Basically, a strange and mysterious man visits a household and makes a very unusual proposal to them. He hands them a small box with a red button on it and says to them that they have a choice to make. They can press the red button, at which moment someone whom they don’t know will die, and at the same time, simply for pressing the red button, they would get a payment for a million dollars in cash. The household that is presented with this premise is a poor one, a couple that is struggling to make ends meet. Of course the offer of receiving a million dollars for simply pressing a red button seems like one they should at least consider. All their present economical troubles would vanish, but somebody they don’t know would have to die. To press the button or not to press it? That is the question.
The following review will be sprinkled with many spoilers. This is not going to be one of my regular reviews where I try and avoid spoilers, on this review I will be giving my own take as to what I thought the film was about, so if you don’t want the particulars of the story spoiled for you, read no further. On the other hand, if you have seen The Box and you are open for a discussion of this films themes; then read on my friend!
I have read many reviews on this film that make it out to be a confusing film. And in a way, a confusing film is the kind of film you are to expect from writer director Richard Kelly who was responsible for directing the “mind fuck” films known as Donnie Darko (2001) and Southland Tales (2006). I agree, both can be extremely confusing (yet enjoyable) films. But I don’t think The Box is as convoluted as Kelly’s previous films. It does have some confusing elements to it, but they are not really pushed to the max as in previous Kelly films. The Box plays with many of the themes that Richard Kelly loves to explore Like interdimensional travel or traveling through time. Donnie Darko has Donnie, a depressed and neurotic teenager discover that he can travel through time and space, and he can even see where his destiny is headed. On Southland Tales he dealt with similar themes of traveling from one dimension to the next, and maybe stumbling upon another version of you from some other point in time. Even though these films might prove to be confusing, they made for truly interesting films to watch, the mystery of it all always keeping you glued to the screen.
Director Richard Kelly, trying to stick to his artistic integrity, while directing a commercial film
The Box is similar in this way. It’s got that strange aura of mystery to it all the time, you will be intrigued through out its duration. In this way, once again Richard Kelly shows us how much he admires David Lynch. This movie feels like a Lynch movie even more so then Southland Tales and Donnie Darko did. In fact, a couple of scenes from The Box were swiped from Lynch films, mainly Lost Highway (1997). So even though this film might prove to be “too confusing” for some, some might also delight in that constant vibe of strangeness that the film evokes every step of the way.
So heres where we start talking about the movies themes. Did anyone out there get the vibe that this movies premise was simply that of God putting a common family to the test? Testing them to see if they would do what is right? Frank Langella played the mysterious Mr. Arlington Steward, the man who knocks on the Lewis household and presents them with a moral dilemma. I thought the dilemma in this film was interesting, considering the times we are living in where a lot of people suddenly face themselves with the fact that they have to struggle to survive, to put food on their tables, to pay the rent. The Lewis Family is living on a “pay check to pay check” situation as Cameron Diaz’s character puts it; so I liked the fact that the film is asking people out there these questions. Things might be bad, but if push came to shove, would you be willing to kill others so that you could be okay?
The fact that this film is about “doing what’s right” and making the right choice is really what drives me to believe this movie was all about the Lewis family getting a visit from God. The biblical allusions are there plain as daylight. The option to press the button or not is similar to temptation, same as the situation the biblical Adam and Eve were in when God puts the tree of “good and evil” in paradise and tells them not to eat from it. The Box is more or less the same story. The Box is the tree of good and evil, and pressing the button on the box would be the equivalent of eating from the tree that God told you not to eat from. The answer to pressing that red button or not, should be an automatic “no” simply because of the fact that somebody would be dying if you press it. Doesn’t matter if you don’t know the person, or if you won’t see that person die, you’re still supposed to be killing someone if you press it. And all for a million dollars, for monetary gain. If you press that button, you are making the wrong moral choice, breaking one of the ten biblical commandments “though shall not kill” and as is shown in the film, the Lewis family ends up paying for “sinning” in such a big way.
Which is really what Arlington Steward does in the film. He makes the Lewis family pay for having committed the atrocious crime of pressing that red button. Arlington Steward might not really be God himself, but he has god like powers and is certainly connected to the supreme being in some form or another. For all intents and purposes, he represents God in the film, spewing judgment left and right, making evil doers pay. But how does Arthur C. Clarkes quote fit the rhyme scheme of this film? Well, I’m thinking that this film was taking the route of Alex Proya’s Knowing (2009) which presented us with the idea that maybe angels are really aliens, and that we humans, not fully understanding them see them as angels. We see them as something spiritual (or magical) because we do not understand their scientific nature. This is something that movies do when they tackle religious themes, because in this way you present both sides of the tale, in this way avoiding audience alienation. The Box has a science fiction angle to it with the whole teleportation thing, the traveling through dimensional doors thing. So it has that ambiguity to it. It’s not an openly religious film, but its religious connotations are there. I’m thinking this was just Kelly’s way of being as indirect as possible with the biblical references in the film.
The people who work for Mr. Steward -the god like character in the film- are an allegory for religious individuals. They act strange, they all seem to be mentally connected somehow. They don’t like outsiders meddling in their business, asking questions and doubting things. One scene has Marsden’s character Arthur Lewis searching for information about Mr. Steward past history. Trying to see where he comes from and what makes him tick (same as one might search for the truth behind the idea of God) and what does he confront himself with? Stewards followers! They question him and his purposes, and then they make him choose between “eternal damnation or eternal enlightenment” which should be enough information to let anyone who is watching this film know how much it’s commenting on religion and faith.
I liked the idea that Mr. Steward refers to the whole box thing as an ongoing experiment. He tells them “the experiment continues” with another family who will be presented with the same choice. To me religion is a social experiment, placed upon society by governments to regulate and control peoples moral and ethics. I also find it interesting how Mr. Steward goes from door to door, presenting the family with this experiment, same as many preachers do with their teachings, spreading the teachings of the bible from door to door. After watching The Box I came to a conclusion. In my opinion, religion has demonstrated itself to be a failed experiment, bringing more evil then good to the world. It should be eradicated, and people should be taught to be good simply because they choose to be, because its what’s best for them and their fellow man. Not because they are afraid God is watching them, and he is going to make them pay. But thats my own personal take on religion, so dont take it personal if you think differently. The Box is a dark, mysterious and at times terrafying movie. I found it to be an intriguing flick, with great themes, but not as complex as some make it out to be.
Rating: 4 out of 5