It is 1976 and the year is drawing to an end, when in Richmond married couple Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) are awoken early in the morning by the doorbell. They shuffle dowstairs still half asleep, only to find that a car is pulling away and the driver has left a package on the doorstep. They bring it inside and their young son Walter (Sam Oz Stone) joins them in the kitchen, opening the wrapper to reveal a box with a button on top. The only other thing with it is a card with a note on it saying that Mr Steward will return today at five o'clock: but who is he and what does he want?
Richard Kelly based his script for The Box on the Richard Matheson story Button, Button which had been filmed as part of the eighties revival of The Twilight Zone on television. It was a variation on the old W.W. Jacobs tale The Monkey's Paw in that the couple are offered a deal, that being if they push the button they will be awarded a million dollars but by doing so their actions will end a human life. Apart from that there doesn't seem to be any other consequences, as the person who will die is not anyone known to them, so if they can live with themselves then they get to keep the cash. Naturally, there are consequences which kind of gives lie to the premise of the deal.
Here it is Mr Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) who is making this offer, a dignified gent who for some reason has part of his face missing. This being a Richard Kelly film, mystery was the order of the day, although unlike Donnie Darko this was more straightforward, and far unlike Southland Tales it led to a conclusion that did not make you feel as if Kelly was disappearing up his own arse as far as his storytelling went. The Box was not a return to the following that Darko had been awarded, but there were those who recognised the filmmaker had a surer handle on his material than his previous (and mildly notorious) flop. Not that it did much to help its box office, as it appeared moviegoers were only going to fall hard for Kelly's antics once on this evidence.
In truth the plot grows less intriguing the further it progresses, but such is often the way with deliberately puzzling premises. There is an explanation to all this, and while it may be outlandish it was easier to grasp than those films he had made before, yet there was no getting away from the fact that the enigma should have been sustained right up until the final sequence, as offering up a solution which involves a Martian bolt of lightning and its plans to test the human race remained a little too much information to be taken seriously. Besides, the logical outcome of this experiment (if you want to call it that) would be every one on the planet being visited by Steward eventually and all of them wiping out strangers, which sounds like a very slow way of dividing and conquering.
Kelly showed a neat grasp of his setting, tackling a school where Norma works and the local NASA laboratory where her husband has ambitions to be an astronaut, with any luck one of those heading for Mars one day. These are sketched in with skill, lightly drawing on references to Arthur C. Clarke and Jean-Paul Sartre even if he doesn't do much with them, rendering them somewhat like window dressing for what could have either been a deeply felt moral dilemma or a breathless science fiction adventure. For that matter it doesn't really fall between those two stools, as it comes across as if the filmmakers were more interested in leaving the audience going "Huh?" and then hoping that would turn to "Ah!" and finally "Wow!", so any ethical questions raised by pushing that button are more prey to the mystery than something to be taken with upmost gravity. For all that, The Box might have had pretentions, but could still be enjoyed as science fiction oddity. Music by members of Arcade Fire.
American writer/director whose first film, skewed end-of-the-world sci-fi thriller Donnie Darko, was a big cult hit. He followed it up with the script for Domino, then a disastrous science fiction epic Southland Tales which chased away his blossoming acclaim. The Box saw him continue to be enigmatic, but without much of the approval Donnie Darko had won him.