The Box: AKA How to ruin a perfectly good Twilight Zone episode

James Marsden & Cameron Diaz in The Box
{The Box opened in Seattle today, Friday 11/6 and is playing at The Metro, Oak Tree Cinemas, and Pacific Place}

After seeing Director Richard Kelly’s long-anticipated thriller The Box, I imagined that his decision to make it originated like so; “Oh, you people didn’t like the futuristic-comic-booky-comedy-political-musical statement (Southland Tales) I created? You just want another Donnie Darko, is that it? WELL HERE YOU GO”.

That’s not to say that The Box is anything close to Donnie Darko – of which I am a big fan – but you can definitely tell it’s patterned after the 2001 cult classic: dark, brooding atmospheric shots, multi-dimensional sci-fi effects, similarities to Darko characters: a glaring old lady (think a more upscale Grandma Death), and a sullen, slightly-more-maniacal mini-Frank (sans bunny costume). There’s even a suspicious similarity between this film’s “Human Exploitation Handbook” and “The Philosophy of Time Travel” from DD. Tie-in, much?

So goes the plot: Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) are a school teacher and NASA scientist who apparently live in a giant, perfect house in a giant, perfect neighborhood with really nice things, but are struggling with money. When Arthur loses his chance at becoming an astronaut and Norma is told she can’t get the faculty discount for her son’s private school tuition anymore, they start feeling a bigger crunch – or something. I couldn’t really tell because the script spent exactly 5 minutes examining their money issues.

Frank Langella in The Box

At 5:30 in the morning, a package is dropped off on their doorstep containing “the box”, with a note from a Mr. Steward saying he will be by at precisely 5pm to discuss the details. And arrive he does, with half his face gone (Frank Langella expertly acts around his distracting half-prosthetic/half CGI’d injury, but even he can’t save this thing). Norma lets him in, and he delivers what is probably by now a familiar story to most: press the button, get a million dollars – the catch is: someone you “don’t know” will die. Of course you know that after Norma discusses it with Arthur, someone is going to press the damn thing and chaos will follow.

There are a few things that work: Gillian Jacobs (currently starring in Community as Joel McHale’s uninterested object of affection) stuck out favorably as the startled and confused babysitter, Dana; and the creepier moments in the film hit just fine, but they were basically pieces taken directly from the original “Button, Button” story by Richard Matheson, and adapted into a Twilight Zone episode in 1986. So what’s the problem? Well, if you’re going to turn a 30 minute episode into a 2 hour + movie, you’ve obviously gotta expand on the plot.

Unfortunately, Kelly chose to expand it with a bunch of quasi-religious/morally superior alien nonsense. In attempting to explain the origin of the box and why Mr. Steward is offering it to people, he destroys what works in the original story. Here’s the thing: We don’t NEED to know. In fact, it’s a hellova lot creepier if we have to wonder where it came from and why it exists at all.

But the even bigger error was casting Diaz and Marsden as the two leads. The script deals with a lot of heavy, emotional moments, and these two just cannot pull it off. When Arthur sees Langella’s disfigurement for the first time, I nearly died laughing at his over-the-top reaction. Ditto when Norma attempts to have a heart-to-heart with Mr. Steward later. Explaining how she “felt looovvvve” for him in her Southern drawl while emitting a single tear was bordering on ridiculous. You put that girl up one-on-one against Frank Langella? COME ONE MAN. What were you thinking?

There’s also an attempt to showcase the Lewis’ deep love for one another by including a complicated back story about Norma’s deformed foot (which she inexplicably shows to her students when the oily mini-Frank taunts her). Again, these two can’t pull off the depth of emotional attachment required, and that’s what eventually destroys the climax of this film: they fail to pull us into the dramatic decision they both have to make.

In short; it’s kind of a mess. And as a whole, The Box doesn’t add up to anything remotely entertaining. My advice to you is to skip it and save your theater dollars for something more worthy. In fact, I highly recommend you find the Twilight Zone episode starring Mare Winningham & Brad Davis, and watch that instead.