Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Ethical Red Button

The Box (2009, USA, Richard Kelly): 8/10

When I was a young kid, I remember staying up late to watch episodes of the Twilight Zone. I have forgotten most of the episodes but the episode based on the "Button, Button" short story stayed with me. The episode ended on a chilling note and I can still remember the ethical dilemma the couple faced while sitting in front of a simple box with a button in the center. When I first heard about Richard Kelly’s film adaptation, I was intrigued about how this short story could be extended into a feature. Given Richard Kelly’s previous two features, I had a feeling that The Box would certainly be fresh and innovative. Sure enough, I was not let down as The Box is indeed one of the most though provoking films to come out of the normally stale and cliched Hollywood film industry.

**** Some spoilers ****

The short story ended with the idea that the young couple could die next when the box would be given to someone the couple didn’t know. The feature picks on up this idea and shows that the box follows a closed loop where death will next take place in the household that last pressed the button. Since there are multiple such boxes doing the rounds in America, a scenario is setup where various paths of life/death will be made. On a macro level, the boxes also seem to serve as an elaborate game theory model where pressing a button also triggers codes for a possible global game of destruction. The game theory angle is never mentioned but can be inferred at the continuously changing world map listing the various US combat command centers around the world. Does the map change everytime someone presses the button? Possibly, because in one instance the deliverer of the box, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), mentions the game will stop when enough people decide to not press the button. The game theory angle could have been the perfect explanation for the film had there not been the additional layers of an alien invasion, government conspiracy and religious implications thrown in the mix. Not to mention the mind control element and portals used to give people a glimpse of the after life or to transfer them from one location to another. I am unable to find a unified theory to explain everything in the movie but that did not diminish my enjoyment of the film. Two other films came to mind while watching The Box -- David Twohy’s 1996 feature The Arrival regarding the radio communication with aliens and the ending of John Carpenter’s 1987 feature Prince of Darkness. The ending of Prince of Darkness showed that someone from the future was sending messages at a frequency which was picked up by the people in the church only in their dreams, meaning only when the people fell asleep were they able to get the same dream, which turned out to be an encoded message. In The Box, people’s mind is controlled via a frequency which renders them into zombies and in turn transmits the images they see back to a central source.

The Box requires an investment from the audience to think ahead and to piece things together. Given the poor reviews the film has received, it is clear that most people were not willing to invest their time in this film and slammed it. The same reaction was given to Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, a film which was much less complicated than The Box and even to Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking, a film which was jam packed with intelligent ideas. If The Box was instead an animated film, then some people might have accepted what they saw on screen. I can’t remember many people complaining too much about how an elderly man could spend a single night to blow up enough helium filled balloons to uproot his house in Up. No one seemed to further question how a young boy could then navigate this flying house in the movie correctly to South America with just a compass? A cartoon allows one to easily digest any deviation from reality whereas a flesh and blood feature allows very little room for imagination. Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko became a cult hit on video and DVD and I certainly hope The Box does find an audience on DVD. While the film may not be on the same level as Donnie Darko, The Box certainly needs to be seen and not dismissed lightly.


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