Richard Kelly’s “The Box”: A Modern “Twilight Zone” Experience | Review

With The Box, Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly revisits the popular science fiction atmosphere of The Twilight Zone, crafting a film that balances new technologies with a sense of nostalgia.


The Box (2009)
Director: Richard Kelly
Screenplay: Richard Kelly
Based on: Button, Button by Richard Matheson
Stars: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne

* * *

Mars Trades Only Buttons

In 1976, Norma Lewis is a high school teacher and her husband Arthur is a NASA engineer. During a particularly vulnerable time (Arthur learns he was passed over for a promotion, preventing their son from continuing at the best school in the area, and Norma must forgo surgery to repair an old injury), they receive a visit from a mysterious man with a disfigured face. He offers them a box with a red button. If they press the button, they will receive a million dollars, but someone they don’t know will die. Norma and Arthur have only 24 hours to face this moral dilemma and confront their true nature…

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man,
it is as vast as space and as timeless as infinity:
it is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition,
and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.
This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”
—Opening narration for the classic television series The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)

A common occurrence in cinema history, Richard Kelly is one of those directors who is not easily forgiven for their subsequent efforts. As an enfant prodige who genuinely shook the film industry, critics, and the collective imagination with his debut, the acclaimed Donnie Darko (2001), Kelly then disappointed expectations, especially from critics, five years later with the convoluted Southland Tales, a complex and rather personal film that was savaged by the press and poorly distributed worldwide. With the initial failure behind him and the euphoria of Donnie Darko sufficiently distant, Kelly approached his third endeavor, The Box, with fewer eyes on him. The immediate impression of the film is that Kelly has not lost the seductive and unsettling style that characterized the hallucinatory adventures of student Donnie.

Kelly’s first recognizable quality connects him to great auteurs, primarily Lynch, but also Carpenter: the ability to instill a sense of unease, the feeling that something unpleasant is about to happen, hangs in the air around the characters even if what they do or say is not yet a source of mystery or fear. Before the story develops, there is already something strange, and Kelly seems to focus on the particular fascination of science and its natural transcendence toward the mysterious and fantastic.

Thus, just entering the NASA premises, the only industrial establishment in a cold, silent, and unremarkable town, with its machinery, wind tunnel, and people with slight physical deformities, something undefined has already captivated the audience, who will only get their first real shock several minutes later when they see the digitally disfigured face of Frank Langella (recently an excellent lead in Frost/Nixon), a phantom military figure typical of those seen in spy thrillers and many recent series involving the CIA, paramilitary formations, secret procedures, and burned or elusive dossiers. In The Box, we encounter the usual, but not unrealistic, media-reported connections between extraterrestrials and military/government elements. However, this is not in the realm of The X-Files, Roswell, or their imitators but rather a more nostalgic territory of mid-twentieth-century science fiction. The Box is based on a story by Richard Matheson, a cult author of science fiction novels like I Am Legend and—worth noting—the screenwriter of the first series of The Twilight Zone. The familiarity with the famous series is evident here: an absolutely simple idea serves as a passport to the surreal, almost cloying in its sparseness, but absolutely effective and metaphorically readable; after all, these were products intended for a broad audience, not niche. Kelly adds a space and extraterrestrial element to the original, setting it in the 1970s (it seems the director’s father was a NASA employee, and the two protagonists appear to be modeled after his parents), immediately after the first Mars mission.

The director’s trademark, and perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film, is the mix of new technologies and a sense of nostalgia. The Box, with its Twilight Zone-like plot and continuous digital transformations of objects, people, and environments, appears quite successful. However, what seems limiting for the director is the excessive number of references and allusions (body snatchers, scattered portals, unclear characters) that crowd his film, especially in the second part, contrasted by an overly clear moral message, too didactic, and ultimately unnecessary for the film. Another imperfect film from a director who promises much and has already demonstrated a lot, but still captivates with its singular beauty, rekindling a way of making cinema akin to many great auteurs: taking the best elements from genre cinema.

Valerio Ceddia

Quinlan, July 7, 2010


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