When I was a kid, I found a button on a wall in my grandparents’ house. Guess what happened next? I pushed the button. The house alarm blared and within minutes police officers were at the door. The moral of the story? Not all buttons are meant to be pushed and that fact couldn’t be more obvious when it comes to The Box. Do yourself a favor, think twice about giving into foolish curiosity and leave The Box’s button untouched.
The year is 1976 and NASA has just landed the first robotic research device on Mars. A NASA engineer, Arthur Lewis (James Marsden), lives happily with his wife, Norma (Cameron Diaz), and son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone), in Richmond, Virginia. Just before dawn, the doorbell rings. Before Norma can get to the door, the mysterious visitor is gone leaving behind an unmarked package. Inside that package is a box and atop that box is a giant red button. It isn’t until this peculiar visitor, Arlington Stewart (Frank Langella), returns, that they learn this box has the power to drastically change their lives. The rules are as follows: push the button and get one million dollars, but – and that’s a big but – someone you don’t know will die. Norma and Arthur are given 24 hours to make a decision. Arlington can provide no details about his employer and the Lewises are forbidden from discussing the situation with anyone but each other.
What a fantastic concept! It’s endlessly fascinating to see what people will do for money. Sadly, The Box takes this enthralling premise, muddles it up, makes it completely ludicrous and tops it off with Diaz’s pathetic attempt at a southern accent. Thanks to shoddy dialogue, a tacky score and Diaz’s miscasting, right from the start, the suspense is rendered laughable. I’m not saying that she should be completely restricted to romantic comedies (I really enjoyed her in My Sister’s Keeper), but here she comes off as completely unnatural. Norma is a bleak character to begin with, Cameron’s bad performance only further removes her from the story.
The Box is pushed even further into oblivion as the plot thickens and spins out of control. The original premise, beautiful in its simplicity, takes a turn for the absurd by overdosing on science fiction. The story grows without restraint becoming frustratingly complex and ultimately tiresome. These developments might have made sense if more attention were paid to details. I don’t expect to know and understand every element inside and out, but it is necessary for an audience to be informed enough to stay involved. As the story becomes more confusing and less engaging, The Box becomes increasingly frustrating.
The weak plot is further tarnished by the film’s unbearably slow pace. Minus one or two very cheap scares, The Box is far from suspenseful. As a matter of fact, it has more unintentional laughs than tense moments. Most of the ‘creepy’ instances hearken back to The Happening’s failed attempts at making the audience uneasy through eerie death scenes. Even more amusing is the sequence of events during which Arthur is followed by presumably possessed individuals along the lines of the alienized student body in The Faculty. You’re supposed to learn from the mistakes of others!
The only thing worth watching here is Marsden. In spite of being paired with disastrously bad Cameron, the guy is flawless. He’s convincing and commands the screen far better than his female counterpart. As for Langella, he did what he was supposed to do: act creepy. His character is completely swallowed up by the plot’s more preposterous elements making him as ineffective as the unnecessary hole in his face.
The Box is based on Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button,” which is beautiful in its simplicity and haunting irony. Kelly’s version constantly trips over its unnecessary convulsions and becomes far too elaborate to be taken seriously. Within minutes of the opening credits, The Box becomes the exact opposite of the source material, long-winded and boring.