NEWSFLASH! Richard Kelly's third directorial feature THE BOX wasn't as bad as I expected it to be. Initial signs weren't good, though: for one thing, putting James Marsden in your film's always going to be a bit of a gamble. He's the sort of charisma black hole that makes his appearance as Cyclops in the X-Men films feel like stunt-casting, and if you put him in a room with Hayden Christensen they'd cancel each other out.
In THE BOX, he plays Arthur Lewis, a Nasa...somethingorother. Engineer, I think. He helped develop an optic lense for a space camera, or something. But really, all he seems to do is make prosthetic feet for his wife, Norma (Cameron Diaz) - in a needlessly convoluted bout of exposition, Arthur explains that Norma has a deformed foot, not for a simple reason like birth defect or burn wound, but because she dropped a dumbbell on it, and then when she was getting x-rayed in the hospital, the doctor left the machine on and irradiated her toes so they had to be amputated. The actual point of all this nonsense is to reveal that all she got in the way of compensation was $10, 000. WHAT AN INJUSTICE!
We're supposed to care about Arthur and Norma, and feel sorry for their money troubles and hard-done-by life, so that we're more willing to accept the incredibly simple premise of the actual film: Here's a box with a button on it. Press the button and you'll get $1million...and someone you don't know will die.
I try to avoid spoilers but I'm going to have to mention the 80's Twilight Zone episode, and the original story this film mutated from so be warned. In the TZ show, the family aren't exactly well-to-do, so we believe they're willing to risk killing a stranger to get their hands on some dough. In the original story, the husband gets pushed in front of a train, and the insurance money is the amount the wife's been promised. The caveat is "How well do any of us really know someone?"
Not so in THE BOX. Arthur works for NASA for crying out loud. How are we supposed to believe he's not getting a nice amount of money, especially if he helped build a bloody space camera. And then there's Norma, who's a teacher, and she's losing her 'teacher discount' (I have no idea what this actually pertains to). Fair enough, she makes the comment that they're living 'pay cheque to pay cheque', as so many people tend to do, but any and all sympathy you might have for this couple goes right out the window when she comments that the £1million would really let them have the life they want. Not a better quality of life, but the life they want.
"Ah!" you say, possibly clicking your fingers in realisation. "They're spoilt brats! I have no sympathy for these people!"
Norma's parents are clearly well-off, so that's undoubtedly supposed to explain her desire for 'nice things'. But there's no suggestion they wouldn't help her out, financially, so why is there any real need for her to worry about money? And Arthur drives a ridiculously flash car. Sell it, mate. There's this thing called 'downsizing'.
And who dies as a result of Norma pressing the button? I'm not entirely sure. This is where it starts to get confusing. A lot of people have been, and are being, offered The Box and the money, so a lot of people are dying all over the place as a result of other people pressing buttons. Possibly. There's no real indication who Norma and Arthur 'killed', except at the end when...well, I won't spoil the actual ending for you.
If I remember correctly, in the original story, and I think the TZ episode, we either don't get to find out who's behind The Box, or it's possibly the government. In THE BOX, it's aliens. There, I've said it. Aliens. They're testing the human race to see if they should expppzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
HUH? WHAT?! Oh sorry, I kinda zoned-out there for a while. Something about watery gateways, and the afterlife, and...something. Or something.
To it's credit, THE BOX turns into a mutant conspiracy thriller (that is, it's a weird version of a conspiracy thriller, not a conspiracy thriller about mutants, which might actually be quite good) but the downside to this is that it adds a whole load of superfluous guff to proceedings. There is absolutely no need for the alien angle at all, as it doesn't add anything to the film except a sense of confusion. Something about the Mars Project, and lightning putting a man in contact with aliens, and...you get the idea. Well, no you won't, but you can at least marvel at the disgusting wallpaper in Arthur and Norma's house.
THE BOX is a prime example of the source material not warranting a full-length movie. And instead of crafting a lean paranoid thriller with supernatural undertones, Richard Kelly vomits his science fiction obsessions over the script (which he wrote) and tries to be interesting, but comes across as desperate. Aliens! You can't trust anybody! They're going to kill everyone! No, wait, they're going to take everyone to a better place! Hang on, they're malevolent! No, benevolent! Look at me! Look at what I'm doing! I can be good again; I promise Donnie Darko wasn't a fluke! Just keep giving me money and continue to not let anyone else read my scripts!
Oh Richard, you're not a terrible filmmaker, not at all. You have a fine imagination, but it lacks focus. THE BOX isn't a terrible film, it's just not very good. And I'm not angry with you - I'm disappointed.