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The Box (2009)

Warner Home Video
Blu-ray Disc Released: 2/23/2010

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Audio: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 2/16/2010

Get it on Blu-ray, DVD, & Download February 23rd

It happens everyday. In the workforce, in sports, in religion, in The Matrix, people are always looking for "The One" -- that person who will change everything and inspire everyone. In 2001, a little movie called Donnie Darko arrived and many felt that Writer/Director Richard Kelly was going to be a new driving force in cinema. Many looked forward to his next project, but when Southland Tales (which I have not seen) arrived in 2006, it was met with very mixed, often negative reactions. Was this simply a sophomore slump? We can now decide that as Kelly's third film, The Box arrives. Will this renew film fans' faith in Kelly?

As The Box, which is set in 1976, opens, we are introduced Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden), a couple who live in Richmond. Norma is a teacher and Arthur works at NASA on the Mars project. One day, they find a package on their front porch which contains a black box. There is also a note which states that a Mr. Steward will be visiting. Mr. Steward (Frank Langella) arrives as promised and makes Norma a bizarre offer. He states that if Norma or Arthur press the button on the box, then somehow who they do not know will die and they will receive $1 million. He then leaves. Arthur examines the box and finds that it's hollow, so they assume that this is some sort of elaborate hoax. However, given some recent financial setbacks, Norma gives the offer serious thought. Her decision will set a chain of events in motion which will rock the core of her family and become a bigger morality test for herself and Arthur than she could have ever imagined.

The Box is based on a 6-page short-story by the legendary Richard Matheson entitled "Button, Button". (The story was previously adapted for The Twilight Zone.) The story deals with a financially desperate couple who are presented with a mysterious box. This constitutes the basic structure for the films first act. But, obviously, a 6-page story isn't going to make a 2-hour movie. So, Kelly decided to base Norma and Arthur on his parents. Note that I didn't say "inspired by", but "based on". The town, occupations, and personal traits (including Norma's foot and backstory) come directly from the lives of Kelly's parents.

The remainder of the movie (which fills the second and most of the third act) turns into something akin to Invasion of the Body Snatchers or In the Mouth of Madness. Arthur begins to investigate Mr. Steward and this introduces he and Norma to what appears to be a bizarre conspiracy. Everywhere they go, they are followed by groups of people who behave very oddly and most anyone to whom they speak develops a nose-bleed. It begins to appear that the box and the strange people are tied to NASA.

Now, I'm not going to say that I understood every single second of Donnie Darko, but the movie had a nice narrative flow and even the things which weren't crystal clear were interesting. For the first hour or so, it appears that The Box is going to have the same appeal. However, thing really unravel in the second half. Essentially, Kelly bites off far more than he can chew. The movie takes the simple moral choice of pushing the button and then expands this into a paranoid science-fiction thriller which goes in so many directions that it goes nowhere. As the movie progresses, it makes the mistake of continuing to introduce new ideas without sewing up old ones. We are presented with liquid portals, giant wind-tunnels, a scary motel, and several other things. All the while, we are left to wonder, who was that kid?; what does Arthur's psychological evaluation have to do with anything?; what was up with the babysitter? (I've read reports on-line that Kelly's original cut was three hours and was then whittled down to less than 2 hours. This would certainly explain why it feels as if there are "gaps" in the story.) The finale comes back to the story of the box, but by this point, the movie has gone so far afield that it's difficult to be interested. (Note that I'm not even mentioning the fact that Norma and Arthur claim to have money problems, yet they live in a nice brick house and Arthur drives a Corvette.)

After watching The Box, I roamed the web looking for comments about the movie. I found that there are two divergent opinions on what the film is about -- some feel that it's a religious tale while others think that it's an alien invasion story. I've never been a big fan of movies which leave the story "up to interpretation" (up to interpretation = lazy writing), but if people can't form a consensus on what your movie is about, then there may be something wrong with your movie. There's no doubt that Richard Kelly is an ambitious filmmaker and The Box certainly has some great shots (much of it looks like a Brian De Palma film from that era) and a few undeniably creepy moments. However, the story is beyond muddled and will satisfy few. This is one box which is best left closed.

The Box can't make up it's mind on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Warner Home Video. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 15 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing no notable grain and no defects from the source material. The colors look very good, most notably the garish wallpaper in the kitchen and the image is never too dark or bright. The picture is a bit soft at times, but this could be due to some of Kelly's style choices. The level of detail vacillates, but it's fairly good throughout. The Disc holds a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.0 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. I wish that Warner would use DTS more often, as these tracks always sound nice. We get good stereo effects here, which are nicely detailed and clearly illustrate off-screen action. The surround sound effects are good, most notably in the scene where the babysitter is running through the motel. A wreck offers nice subwoofer action.

The Box Blu-ray Dics offers a handful of extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Writer/Director Richard Kelly. "The Box: Grounded in Reality" (11 minutes) contains comments from Kelly who discusses his inspiration for the film. He talks about his love for the short story, but he also reveals that the inspirations for Norma and Arthur were his own parents. Kelly's parents appear here and talk about their lives and how their experiences were mirrored in the film. "Richard Matheson: In His Own Words" (5 minutes) is an interview with the legendary author who describes his career and his original short story. Visual Effects Editor Dylan Highsmith provides commentary in "Visual Effects Revealed" (4 minutes) to explain how the effects for three key elements of the film were created. "Music Video Prequels" (9 minutes) contains three short pieces which contain footage from the film (some familiar, some new) which examines the work at NASA and the incidents which occurred there.

Review Copyright 2010 by Mike Long