Thursday, December 10, 2009
Sometimes it pays to have low expectations. I went into The Box, Richard Kelly's latest, on the understanding that, no matter what ridiculousness would transpire, at least James Marsden is pretty hot, which I contend is no baser a reason to see it than the action-oriented marketing and the negative critical reaction implies. Sci-fi pulp like this usually depends on emotional engagement and imagination more than the intricacies of its philosophy, but The Box is both less involving and smarter than I expected.
The hook: A disfigured Frank Langella presents a staunchly middle America couple played by the aforementionedly beautiful Marsden and the funny (or, if you’re into that sort of thing, attractive) Cameron Diaz with a box and a choice: push the button in the box and receive a million dollars, but someone you don’t know will die. Or don’t. It’s a moral test that I think (not believe in the bottom of my utopian soul but really, truly think) that most people would pass with flying colors. But not these two, and unfortunately for Kelly’s credibility, not anyone in his film.
Thankfully and contrary to everything I’ve learned from similar sci-fi, Arthur and Norma Lewis act like real people. They ask the right questions, they try to outsmart the bad guys the way you or I would, and no matter how crazy things get, at least until the end, they never let incredulity or rage inhibit their chances of reasonably determining what the hell is going on. And, in the tradition of Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, what the hell going on is ridiculously out there.
Leave it to Richard Kelly to take a simple yet grand ethical dilemma as a springboard for aliens and gods and predestination, invoking or obsessing over Arthur C. Clarke (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) and Jean-Paul Sartre (“Hell is other people seeing you for who you really are”). At first The Box is a relatively simple argument for accepting responsibility for your actions, with a series of followup choices in the wake of the titular box test. But then it becomes a (still relatively facile) condemnation of consumerist greed and a too-easy cynical assessment of post-Watergate America, while finally looping back on itself and becoming an ethical dilemma with universal consequences. Add to this Arthur failing his psychological evaluation for NASA and an NSA takeover of the Langley facilities, and there's plenty to keep your mind occupied.
Did I mention it’s set during a Romeroesque Christmas in the American bicentennial of 1976? Kelly’s postmodernist impulses cleverly layer the soundtrack, whenever possible, with background radio political addresses or televised NASA press conferences, and the whole affair is styled after a paranoid ‘70s conspiracy thriller, right down to the awesomely cheesy dialogue and score (by Arcade Fire). Of course, this hurts as much as it helps, as in the grand finale where the overbearingly lugubrious strings prevent us from responding naturally to the potential tragedy in the works. Meanwhile, the film’s paranoia can sometimes fail to translate, as when the babysitter has a Lynchian freakout and instead of coming off as creepy, it registers as interestingly weird. Worse, Kelly’s penchant for obliterating ambiguity by spelling out exactly what he’s doing shows up, though The Box is so ridiculous that there’s plenty still lurking out of sight.
All in all, The Box is a genuinely fascinating film, a buoy to Southland Tales detractors who thought “it’s supposed to be an obtuse, facile mess” was an unconvincing argument for the film’s worth. I maintain that Kelly’s damning contempt for society, at least in this extreme case, is bunk, and by the end, you’ll probably wonder why we spent all this time with the Lewises when there’s so much more you’d like to know about. But hey, you could do worse than spend a couple hours with James Marsden.