Cast: Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz), Arthur Lewis (James Marsden), Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), Walter Lewis (Sam Oz Stone), Norm Cahill (James Rebhorn), Dick Burns (Holmes Osborne), Lana Burns (Celia Weston), Dana (Gillian Jacobs)
Director: Richard Kelly
Theatrical release: 11/09/2009 DVD Date: 02/23/2010
Review: Potential viewers of Richard Kelly's interpretation (and expansion) of the short story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson should know in advance that it would be unfair to compare The Box to his previous film Donnie Darko. There is no comparison. One is original and at times brilliant, the other not so much. It's not hard to guess which is which.
Matheson's "Button, Button" was originally adapted for an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1986. The televised screenplay was faithful to the story with the exception of the ending; it is generally known that Matheson did not approve of the way The Twilight Zone episode concluded. Well, it's likely he wouldn't have approved of the way his story was adapted for The Box either, since the first half of the movie is essentially an updated version of the television episode.
Norma and Arthur Lewis are a prototypical suburban middle-class couple, she a teacher for the private (and exclusive) school at which their son attends, and he an engineer for NASA. Naturally, they live well beyond their means and financial disappointment looms when the cost to send their son to school rises substantially and Arthur loses out on an opportunity to become an astronaut (which presumably pays more than he currently makes). A mysterious box with a large red button arrives on their doorstep one morning together with a note saying a Mr. Steward will arrive at 5 PM. At the appointed time, he does arrive with a financial proposal for the couple to consider: push the button and receive $1 million. And, oh by the way, someone whom they don't know will die. Don't push the button, and the opportunity will be given to someone else. They have 24 hours to decide. Arthur takes the box apart, finds no electronics or any other operational mechanism, and thinks the whole thing is a hoax. Norma isn't so sure, and with just minutes to spare before the deadline, pushes the button. Mr. Steward arrives with a briefcase containing the promised cash, takes the button box, and leaves.
Without giving away what happens next, both the short story and The Twilight Zone episode end at this point. The Box, however, is just getting warmed up and goes off on a completely different plot tangent involving aliens, gateways to other dimensions, impossible to answer questions of morality, government secrets and lies, and much more. To say it's a mess is an understatement.
The performances are actually quite good, and for the part of the film that follows the short story both Cameron Diaz and James Marsden seem to enjoy portraying these characters, giving them life and depth. But when the storyline takes an abrupt left turn into nonsense, the actors seem as dazed and puzzled as the viewer.
No, I didn't enjoy The Box and no, I don't recommend it. But maybe my expectations were all wrong going in, believing (hoping?) that Richard Kelly had written and directed another Donnie Darko or that he had somehow devised a way to expand, even improve, on the short story and/or television episode. Sadly, at least from my perspective, neither is the case.