In an era when technology increasingly fragments our culture, a straightforward morality play might seem like a refreshing change of pace. The source material for Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly's The Box, Richard Matheson's short story “Button, Button” is simply that: A stranger named Arlington Steward offers a box to average American couple Norma and Arthur Lewis, telling them that if they push the button, an unknown person will die and they will receive a large sum of money. Evoking the psychological work of Stanley Milgram, whose controversial experiment found ordinary subjects willing to inflict harm on an unknown person when instructed to do so by an authority figure, Matheson's story adds an element of self-interest and a twist ending to serve as a warning that no decision is without consequence. It's the kind of tale that was tailor-made for The Twilight Zone. In fact, Matheson wrote for that series, and "Button, Button" was the basis for an episode during its 1980s revival.
The Box keeps Matheson's premise and pays lip service to its moral questions, but twists the story itself into the rambling narrative of an alien-invasion conspiracy. Set in 1976, presumably to evoke post-Watergate paranoia and the “period” setting of the Mars probe, the story's average couple, Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden), are now anything but normal. Arthur is a NASA engineer, and his everyman's problems include being rejected by the astronaut program. (I feel compelled to point out this was also Will Smith's character's big dilemma in Independence Day.) Norma, who has a disfigured foot from a freak X-ray accident she suffered as a teenager, teaches at an elite private school so that the couple's son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone), can attend on a discount. When the tuition discount is taken away, it causes the family financial stress and the stage is set for severe burn victim Arlington Steward's (Frank Langella) proposition. When Norma eventually pushes the button, the pair discovers strange forces are at work in their lives. Steward, it turns out, is a former NASA employee now controlled by an alien presence, and the box is part of a massive alien experiment in which the U.S. government is also complicit.
Kelly removes much of the mystery from this setup by prefacing the film with a typed National Security Administration memorandum about Steward and his box. In an early scene, a nosy reporter asks why there is an NSA employee at a NASA press conference, and that essentially tips the director's hand. Before Norma and Arthur even know what the box does, the audience has a good idea that the characters are in the midst of a government-alien conspiracy. This setup might work if Kelly wanted to eschew mystery in favor of focusing on the moral and ethical implications of pushing the button, but, instead, the film centers on Norma and Arthur trying to figure out what exactly the conspiracy is. With his main characters thus occupied, Kelly treats us to cutaway shots of Steward standing menacingly in a force-field-protected wind tunnel that serves as his alien lair.
Believe it or not, those images of Steward are among The Box's best moments, which recall schlocky, B sci-fi movies from the 1950s and 60s. Unfortunately, rather than acknowledging his story's absurdity, Kelly tries to maintain a serious tone. At the film's climax, he treats us to the psychological equivalent of torture porn, as Walter, struck deaf and blind by alien forces, squirms helplessly on a cold, wet floor, while Arthur decides whether to kill Norma to cure the aliens' plague on their son. Adding further damage, Kelly falls prey to the filmic cliché of a classroom discussion of a literary work (in this case Sartre's No Exit), which is intended to serve as a metaphor for the characters' dilemma. But referencing an existentialist's work does not make this convoluted film a meditation on moral philosophy.
Martin Scorsese has described early B-movie directors as “smugglers" who used genre conventions to mask more potent themes in their films. Perhaps Kelly, who seems to be doing exactly the opposite, should have learned more from his predecessors.