Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Box

It was about an hour into The Box that a very powerful thought occurred to me.

This is stupid.

I think it was what they call a "Moment of Clarity" - a moment in your life when a single thought allows you to break through to another plane of existence and see things in a new way, a clearer way than the mind can normally achieve. It was like Col. Kurtz's "diamond bullet in the brain" from Apocalypse Now: I saw things I shouldn't have been able to. I saw the pure, raw, unfiltered essence of stupidity itself. I stared into the abyss and it stared back. Cross-eyed, buck-toothed, and with it's tongue wagging out as it guffawed like Goofy.

Yes, this movie is exceptionally stupid. To boil it down to it's very simplest terms...would require a doctoral thesis because this movie is so absurdly complicated and nonsensical that it's simplest terms are about four million words in length. The setup is that Frank Langella plays a freakishly deformed man named Arlington Steward, who gives random people an offer: push a button and receive a million bucks in exchange for someone they don't know dying when the button is depressed, or walk away from the money. His reasons for doing this are intricate, convoluted, and very, very stupid. Suffice to say it involves people who control lightning, aliens, portals to the afterlife, mind control, parallel dimensions and time travel.

Did I mention The Box was directed by Richard Kelly? Oh right, I didn't have to. Throw a bunny costume into the above equation and you have Donnie Darko all over again. But, oh, how much worse The Box is than even that.

Cameron Diaz and James Marsden play Norma and Arthur Lewis, the latest contestants on Frank Langella's bizarre little game show. Norma is a college professor who just lost her tenure and has a club foot she needs fixed, and Arthur is a NASA scientist who just got denied the right to be an astronaut (on a mars mission. In 1976. Richard Kelly is an idiot). Apparently these things sink them into financial ruin, although the fancy house, uppercrust neighborhood, and nice clothes would never belie this supposed fact. When Langella shows up and makes them the million dollar offer, it seems too good to be true. But, after a day of deliberation, Norma presses the button and much like Eve eating the fruit, she gets her family in some serious trouble with the big man. Only this time the big man is a seventy year old lightning strike victim with half a face.

Oh yes, of course there's a catch to the box. You don't just take the money and run. No, once you push the button you then have to put up with some bullshit undefined, impossibly huge and complicated and ultimately utterly pointless conspiracy that involves everyone on the face of the Earth being in on it except you. What "it" is is, well, nothing, except making you the victim of the next person to press the button. What a surprise. Yes, the whole point of you killing someone else with the box is to plunge you into a series of bizarre cirumstances that ultimately lead to you dying at the same time someone else is pushing the button. And really, the button has nothing to do with it except acting as a catalyst for your mental breakdown to start the ball rolling. Even if the next person chose not to push the button, you'd still find yourself in the same deadly circumstances. Really, the button and the death are just really well timed to happen in the same instant. And so I ask you


What does this guy achieve by having people push buttons and kill themselves a few days later? Oh sure, there's a scene where he vaguely hints at the idea that he's the driving force of human extinction but...wouldn't it be easier to just unleash a virus or something? Why give us the chance that someone will break the chain and end the violence by not pushing the button (and why agree to stop the whole thing if just one person says no?)? Did Frank Langella watch The Day the Earth Stood Still and think that was a nifty idea so why not do it? IS FRANK LANGELLA KLAATU?

Better question: Did Richard Kelly rip off The Day the Earth Stood Still and use a classic Richard Matheson short story as a cover? Yes, yes he did. Between this and the numerous failed attempts to adapt I am Legend, Matheson must be driven to hard drinking just to keep the pain away. Matheson's The Box is only six pages long. How do you pad that out to a two hour movie? You fill it up. With stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. It doesn't have to make sense, and no two scenes need to logically lead into or out of one another. You just need to do random stuff and have the same actors present during all that stuff, and you can call it a story. Ladies and gentlemen, the Richard Kelly school of screenwriting. This movie just keeps throwing random things at you and it never goes anywhere with any of them. Hey, here's a newsreel about Langella's accident. Hey, here's a bunch of people spying on you. Hey, here's a water slide to heaven. Hey, here's some malarky about Arthur C. Clarke's third law. What do they have to do with each other? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

The acting is acceptable all around, which is to say that these poor people had nothing to work with and just delivered their lines the best they could. It's not their fault that this sucks. The writing and directing are abominable. Richard Kelly couldn't direct his way out a wet paper bag. He lets Diaz stop limping every other scene (and ultimately tosses in some BS prosthesis as an afterthought to explain it away), he consistently fails to give us any idea of where things are happening in relation to one another, he falls back on his needless use of CGI (Langella can't just be burned, he needs half his fucking head missing via a very fake chroma key effect that is laughably cartoonish whenever you see him front-on), and he fails to connect any of the plot strands. This was mistaken for genius when Donnie Darko came along, but by now I think we can recognize it for what it really is: Richard Kelly is an amateur and he always will be.

Oh, and did I mention that Frank Langella is a zombie? Ugh.

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