Monday, March 1, 2010

The Box (2009)

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


Bryce Wilson said...

Excellent write up. Its interesting, I more or less agree with you, as to the identity of Seward, but never took it quite that far. The interesting thing I remember is someone asking Kelly "Did Mars pass its test?"

I rewatched it for the third time last night after picking up the DVD, I'm beginning to think its Kelly's best film. It's layered in a way that the other's aren't. While their have always been plenty of Easter Eggs in Kelly's movies, I don't think any of them have been as rich as The Box.

It's kind of like Arcade Fire's Score, it doesn't seem to be doing much at first, but if you listen. Man it grows on you.

Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein said...

I read your review of The Box with infinite interest as the majority of national film reviewers shrugged this film off as just a slightly more pretentious Final Destination. I’m not a fan of what my friend Professor Phileas calls “artsy fartsy” films, but watched Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko none the less. Dark, disturbing and dissolute, Darko was as expected and I didn’t dig it. I’m more of a visceral kind’ a film freak, so I approach films like The Box with much trepidation. You open your review of The Box with Clarke’s classic quote from his revised essay “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination” in Profiles in the Future (1973). I’ve read most of Clarke’s novels and can see how you might find some similarities with them and The Box. Still, nowhere in your review do you mention that The Box was adapted from the 1970 short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson and that it was addapted in 1986 for the new Twilight Zone TV series. These are relevent facts in that Matherson’s works have been addapted many times into film. Most noteably: I Am Legend, which has been made into three different films! I read your review of The Box very closely, despite the spoilers warning and not having yet seen The Box. A sign of a good review is that it informs the reader of the work being reviewed, but also conveys the reviewers emotional and intellectual response to it. Wicked good work, TFM, and despite your comparisions of The Box to several of David Lynch’s films (another artsy fartsy director of whom I’m no fan), I’ll be watching The Box in the near future.

The Film Connoisseur said...

@Bryce: I agree with you Bryce, its a good Kelly film, defenetly better than Southland Tales which in my opinion was an enjoyable mess. Donnie Darko is a big favorite of mine, but I havent seen it in a while.

What I liked about Box was that Kelly did a great juggling act between making a film that was strange, surreal and nightmarish, and making a big budget commercial film with big name stars.

@Fritz "Doc" Frankenstein: Yeah, I didnt mention the fact that this movie was based on Mathesons short story “Button, Button” and the Twilight episode, cause I wanted to cover a lot of ground on this review, specifically I wanted to talk about the God factor and the religious themes in the film.

But thanks for commenting no those points!

I might have gotten a bit personal with the review when it came to my views on religion, but hey, thats what reviews are all about, they gots to capture whatever thoughts came up while you watched it.

The comparison to Lost Highway came from one scene where Cameron Diaz is talking on the phone, and Mr. Steward is on the line...and he tells her that he is looking at her. It reminded me of a similar scene in Lost Highway, with that freaky video camera guy talking on the phone.

This movie surprised me, I wasnt expecting to get involved in it the way I did.

Thanks for the comments Bryce and Fritz!

Bob Ignizio said...

Good review. This is definitely not the sort of visceral cinema Fritz mentions preferring. This is a movie that wants its audience to think and reach their own conclusions. That said, despite a good bit of weirdness, I agree with you that the main points this movie is trying to make are pretty clear. Most of the time killing in the movies is shown for pure entertainment. We laugh and scream at the gory carnage in horror films, or cheer on the action hero as he obliterates dozens of "bad guys". I love mindless violent entertainment as much as the next person, but once in a while it's nice to see a movie that takes moral issues seriously.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I hear ya Bob! Violence can go over the top in movies, specially if its an action movie from the 80s.

I watched that movie Stone Cold just the other day and realized how much movies have changed. The violence during the 80s and early 90s was so crazy and over the top!

But The Box is a whole other type of movie. I guess it puts its characters in these moral situations, it gives them these moral dilemmas to deal with because of how difficult things are in the world.

The economy, the high prices, the low paying jobs...I mean, theres lots of people struggling, just like the couple in the movie. The big question in this movie is, are you going to do whats right during difficult times? Or are you going to go crazy and loose it, making the wrong choice?

Simon said...

WHat I didn't understand is how Kelly could take such a simple story--will they press the button?--into such a...trippy movie. He brought in his usual obscurity and opaqueness and I just got this sinking feeling in my stomach.

I'm the first person to defend Kelly, especially Southland Tales, but this was a bit repetitive. Not to say that I didn't like it, though. I did. Kinda.

jeremythecritic said...

An excellent review and analysis of one of my favorite films of the year. Just picked it up and can't wait to watch it again since I'm sure I'll uncover more. I loved every aspect of the movie, from the score, to the mood and setting. Everything. He nailed it.

The whole thing kind of reminded me of 2001 in terms of the experiment with the boxes standing in as monoliths in a way. There was a huge Kubrick vibe going on in this I thought. Was worried Kelly would compromise to appease the masses but 40 minutes in I was so relieved he didn't. Hope he keeps at it and stays true to his vision, regardless of public opinion. And as a huge fan of his first three films I can't wait to see what he does next.

The Film Connoisseur said...

@Simon: I guess its just a matter of storytelling, its not what story you tell, but how you tell it. Everything in this movie was ominous, you got that strange vibe that something was going on...

@Jeremy: I will be watching it again, thats for sure!

The dimensional portals that lead to "heaven" in the film did remind me of the monoliths, specially because when you walk into them, they transport you just like in 2001. But that could have more to do with the emphasis the film gives to Arthur C. Clarke then Kubrick himself. Even the main character is named Arthur!

As always, thanks for the commends and feedback everybody!

Reina said...

I agree with you when you said that this movie its not as complicated as some people said...still i don't remember somethings about the it because of?...hmmmm....


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