Richard Kelly, director of Donnie Darko, has manufactured another dream of paranoid moral confusion with his latest film The Box. An uneasy tale of alien technology and human greed, The Box is science fiction done the emo way. Spoilers ahead.
Based on 70s short story by Richard Matheson, who also wrote I Am Legend, the movie's central premise is simple. A strangely-disfigured man named Arlington offers a strange proposition to a young family. If they press the button on a box he leaves with them, somebody they don't know will die and they will receive $1 million in cash. School teacher Norma and her NASA engineer husband Arthur aren't sure what to do when the mysterious Arlington leaves them to make their decision. Is the box a hoax? If not, is it bad to kill somebody they don't know if it means they'll have enough money to continue their comfortable, middle-class existence?
With Arthur's dreams of becoming an astronaut dashed (he failed the psychological test), and Norma unable to continue getting a discount for their son at the fancy private school where she teaches, money has recently become a source of anxiety for the couple. So Norma decides to press the button, though Arthur is immediately upset that she does it.
Once this fundamental plot point fades into the narrative background, cult auteur Kelly is free to do what he does best: Get weird. He slowly builds a portrait of suburban life haunted by a mystical military-industrial complex ruled by aliens and spies. Another NASA employee's wife is brutally murdered while their daughter cowers upstairs, and Arthur suspects it's because of Norma's button pushing. Meanwhile, people with nosebleeds are spying on the couple, as well as speaking in portentious tones about "going into the light."
Arlington continues to keep them under surveillance, and they discover that he's actually with the NSA. He built the box after being struck by lightning and mysteriously brought back from the dead. And it all has something to do with the Mars probe Voyager that Arthur helped design.
The movie is packed with the memorable, strange imagery that is Kelly's trademark. Boxes made of water hover in the air, a perfect recreation of a low-tech 1970s library becomes a haunting maze, and the NASA sets are lovingly rendered, complete with retro computers and lens flare. And the eponymous box itself is designed like some kind of Cold War objet d'art. Balanced atop a 70s-style wood panel box is a big red button that looks like it could launch nukes.
Kelly manages to weave together mystical moral issues with government conspiracies and godlike alien intelligences, but the result is uneven. It's hard to sympathize with a comfortably middle-class couple who are willing to kill somebody just so they can continue to live in a giant house and send their son to private school. And the moral universe Kelly has created in The Box is woefully black-and-white: Either you push the button and you're bad, or you don't push it and you're good. I kept waiting for Donnie Darko to step out from behind a curtain and yell at everybody for trying to reduce all human problems to the bland binary of "fear" vs. "love."
We also discover that the button is always pushed by wives, which suggests that women are the culprits holding humanity back from achieving the level of moral goodness that the aliens require in order to spare us from annihilation.
Despite these problems, there were flashes of goofy brilliance in The Box. Especially in the woefully short segments where we see Arlington's mysterious laboratory, located in a wind tunnel that the NSA has requisitioned from NASA, we get a glimpse of a truly great science fiction story. Arlington and his "employees" are a more deeply strange and stylized version of characters from Fringe, and that's a good thing. There's an especially great moment when one of Arlington's puppets returns to the alien spy installation at a tiny freeway motel, which is packed with other alien-controlled people and partly papered over with tinfoil. There's even a cheesy motel pool that's been improbably converted into an alien portal.
Kelly is at his best when he's making mind-melting science fiction with allegorical underpinnings, but unfortunately The Box is more like a morality play with a few science fiction characters hanging around in the background. Making matters worse is that the moral here seems like easy, unimaginative misanthropy. Unlike Kelly's previous films, which bristle with complicated hopefulness in the face of horror, The Box paints a simplistically dark picture of humanity. Despite the best of intentions, women keep pressing that button again and again - putting their families in danger, and dooming Earth to a harsh judgment from the godlike aliens.
Why are such complicated characters doomed to be inserted into narrative boxes that only clumsily contain them? Unfortunately, The Box doesn't answer that question.