“Hell is other people.” I find it only appropriate to start this review with this extraordinarily cynical quote written by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. I’m using it not only because the play it is from, No Exit, is discussed in the film, but rather, because this statement is one that makes you think and look around at the society we live in and try to decide wether or not we are a hellish species. This is one of the main points in The Box, a sic-fi psychological thriller from the writer/director of Donnie Darko.
In The Box, Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) are a happily married couple living in Richmond, Virginia in 1974. They are raising a son named Walter (Sam Oz Stone), and, despite some financial issues, they seem to be living a wonderful life. All of this changes the day that a mysterious box is placed on their doorstep, along with an interesting proposition by the keeper of the box, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella). They are given the opportunity to press the button, and in return be paid a whopping one million dollars in crisp one hundred dollar bills. There is a catch: someone they do not know will die. Norma decides to press the button, and in doing so starts a chain of events that are both extra-terrestrial and morally debilitating.
When this movie first started, and the whole debate on whether the Lewises should press the button was happening, I was really intrigued and curious on what their decision would be. While they were trying to decide on what to do, I was also thinking to myself what I would do. My conclusion was that I wouldn’t press the button, but that’s easy to say when there isn’t a suitcase with a million dollars in it sitting right next to me.
After this, the story completely changes and dives headfirst into the realm of a strange psychological science fiction. The story also gets almost impossibly confusing at this point with plot points involving being brought back from the dead, salvation and eternal damnation, and other worldly beings who are attempting to conduct some sort of experiment. Some aspects of this change up work, whereas some really don’t. The supernatural figures who are responsible for everything that is happening are never really explained. I thought the idea of humanity being experimented on by them was a really neat idea, but not enough was explained about these entities. There are also scenes where we see people walking around like zombies, which is very unsettling, but ultimately useless and didn’t serve a whole lot of purpose in driving the story forward.
While those ideas didn’t particularly work, there are some that were very chilling and memorable. Many characters in this film get nosebleeds, and the explanation for why is very creative and strangely believable. The scenes surrounding the climax are some of the most intense and frightening I’ve seen in a good while. The actual scenes themselves aren’t particularly intense, but when the viewer begins to put themselves in the position of the characters, the action that we see happening on the screen before us is very disturbing.
That’s where the main enjoyment of this movie is going to gravitate towards: the viewer’s own self reflection. This is one of those movies where you really have to put yourself into the position of the characters in order to truly enjoy it. The truth is I did not enjoy everything about this movie. The science fiction aspect of the film with its supernatural beings and gateways into salvation or damnation felt way too overbearing and complicated. Chances are, the viewer will lose track of the plot. I was expecting this from The Box because of my past experience with writer/director Richard Kelly’s film Donnie Darko. The difference between these two movies is that Darko is a very complicated and intelligent film that may be confusing, but the characters and science behind the film are interesting and inventive. It is obvious the Richard Kelly is a huge fan of science fiction as seen in this film and its numerous references to space travel and authors such as Arthur C. Clarke.
In the end, I felt a little let down by The Box. I had higher expectations than I probably should have because I felt like Kelly could deliver like he did with his aforementioned film. It starts out and ends strongly. It’s just a shame that the middle portion of the film tries to cram so many different revelations, genres, and gaping plot holes which almost tarnish the whole movie experience. This is never going to be on any lists of classics, nor is it going to go down as one of the worst movies ever made. It is a mediocre film that tries to be more intelligent and worthwhile than it actually is.