November 8, 2009

300 Words About: The Box

So lemme get this straight, that's two disasters in a row from Richard Kelly, right?

Literally the first words I heard after a promotional screening of Richard Kelly's The Box were, "I'm so glad I didn't have to pay for that," from a relieved audience member as he left the theater. Yes you did, I thought to myself. We all did, and in more than one way.

There are a lot of options presented to the characters in The Box, only some of which (I've heard) are taken from the original short story by Richard Matheson, which apparently made for a great "Twilight Zone" episode in the 80's. The options include choosing between this or that, which will lead to one of these things happening first and second and so on. Tragically for me, never was a character presented with an option to outright end the movie and save thousands of lives in theaters around the world. "The button has been pushed," proclaimed a creepy, still-Nixonian Frank Langella, and along with everyone else I had to live with (and eventually die by) the decision I had already made to see this movie.

My disappointment may differ from yours since I'd actually been looking forward to The Box for well over a year, previewing it in my forecast for 2009 and even mentioning it back in my review of Southland Tales. I think what I failed to recognize after Kelly's defense of that disaster is how closely his words resembled M. Night Shyamalan's (who, it should be known by now, is no friend to this blog). Whether you end up seeing The Box or not, know this fact: If Shyamalan and his rising heir-apparent Kelly ever make a film together, it will be a cinematic spectacle of metaphysical frivolity and pompous bloviating like the world has never seen (at least not since Knowing).

It didn't have to be this way. On paper, The Box is just oozing with cinematic potential, and for the first third of the movie Kelly fires on every single cylinder. Yes, there is engaging, assured, brilliant filmmaking for 45 minutes until, tragically, Kelly gives in to what has become the go-to crutch for any movies with a nonsensical plot: aliens. Oops, did I spoil the "twist"?

Don't worry, it's a predictable enough development from the first minute of the movie, and the actual climax has little to do with the supernatural and a lot to do with actual human emotions and the consequences that follow questionably selfish actions. In short, the ending provides everything the rest of the movie lacks. But oh, what a missed opportunity to that point - we get much more silliness than suspense for the last hour, and the most thought-provoking questions are about Kelly himself (e.g., how has such a promising and visionary director gotten away with eight years of mediocrity?).

So if you haven't already seen The Box, you have a decision to make right now. If you press the button on your mouse and choose to see what time it's playing nearby, three things will happen: 1.) You will be on your way to suffering through one of the worst movies I've seen so far this year; 2.) you will understand how truly bad Southland Tales actually was; and 3.) you will be obligated to come back here and try to set me straight, because this movie is sure to inspire debate.


  1. Thank you for this. I'd actually been reading so many positive reviews of this flick out in the blogosphere that I was starting to fret that I just didn't "get it".

    But no - given that I agree 100% with everything you say here, my reaction to this film seems to be leaning closer to general consensus.


  2. Welcome, Hatter, you are safe here. I'm picking up that a lot of people found a lot to like about this movie. It confounds me, but that's not the first time it's happened and it won't be the last.

    But seriously - aliens. Augh, I am so sick of aliens, and if The Box would have taken any other direction I would have been so much more pleased. We still could have ended up at the same ending without the alien angle. Even worse, Kelly falsely sells this as some probing moralistic thriller. I had the same problem with District 9 - presented to us as one thing when it's really just another alien movie. Outrageous.

    Why couldn't Steward just be a really evil man? With a synopsis like this does the button technology even need to be explained? Just keep it a mystery throughout and focus on the cause and effect and the character motivations, not some hokey conspiracy theory that distractedly fills time and removes all the intrigue and emotion.

    Man, as soon as Marsden arrived at the Shyamalan hotel it was all over for me.

  3. Daniel - I've already been debating this on other sites - and I have to say that the more I think and talk about the more I like it.

    But I have a confession to make. Before seeing this movie, I didn't really know who Richard Kelly is. I had seen Donnie Darko and disliked it - but I didn't know he had directed it. Coming into The Box, therefore, I was never comparing it with Darko.

    I'm assuming you love Kelly if you consider him "visionary." Do you love Donnie Darko? If so, can you explain the plot to me. I went to Wikipedia and read Kelly's wild interpretation. How are we supposed to get that from the movie? I guess I didn't like it because I felt one needed a lot more information in order to form an interpretation. As for The Box, some of that info is missing too, but I loved the sort of B 50s sci-fi movie atmosphere or as Ed Howard states, it seems to "take place in some slightly out-of-whack suburban American netherworld."

    I'm not saying I thought it was a masterpiece, but I enjoyed its tension, atmosphere, and random weirdness, and so I don't consider it the worst film of the year. Yeah, and I loved Knowing, sorry; so I guess that shoots my credibility.

  4. Your impassioned defense of Knowing notwithstanding, Hokahey, I appreciate that you look at these films on their own merits, whereas others (me?) tend to either love or loathe the subgenre categorically.

    I didn't think it was the worst film of the year outright, but then I again I haven't seen Transformers or Jennifer's Body or whatever other garbage in 2009. So this still ends up pretty low for me.

    I wish I could love Kelly, but despite these films I do consider him "visionary". Heck, I could even still consider Shyamalan visionary. But these guys translate their ambitious mind-worlds so poorly to the screen, and along the way nobody seems to tell them that their stories end up sounding like all fluff and no meaning. I don't necessarily love Donnie Darko, but I suppose I appreciated it 8 years ago if only for its novelty. Kelly seemed to know what was going on and that was enough for me. Not anymore - he's not David Lynch, after all. Here, allow David Denby to speak for me from his review:

    "At the risk of impoliteness, I would suggest that Kelly drop his reliance on religio-mystico-eschatological humbug and embrace, in realistic terms, the fantastic possibilities in ordinary acts of murder, fear, heroism, and death. If he pulls himself together, he could be the next Hitchcock."

  5. C'mon, Hatter - it's got a 48% at RT. I don't think you or Daniel are part of some super-minority that despise the film; it's clearly divided audiences.

    I get what you two are saying (though I do think it unfair of you, Daniel, to dismiss it solely because of the alien angle), but I am with Hokahey. I enjoyed it for all its weirdness, and even some (ok, most) of the laugh out loud moments that make it weird. I could or should have hated it from the start of the hotel (though, really, the library is where it really, really started getting freaky), but something clicked and that's where I embraced it.

    The "Stephen King" guy cracked me up the most. I wish I could have been one of the Frowning Follower People, too.

  6. Well, I basically dismissed D9 and Knowing because of their alien angles, too, so at least I'm consistent...?

    By the library scene I had already lost hope, but at least by the time those followers started marching around I knew that Kelly was actually trying to be ridiculous.

  7. @ Fletch... I know, I know, I'm comfy in my negative opinion of a film that as you so rightly say "divided".

    It was just the weirdest thing, after I wrote my review on it - which has also gone on to be one of my more popular posts (???) - I looked around to find a lot of y'all diggin' it. For a day or so I was like "Did I miss something?".

    Little as I liked the movie, I must say this - it sure has been fun arguing about it!

  8. Daniel, I have avoided saying anything on this post, as this was the one big release this past week i did not see. But I have firmed up a viewing one hour from now at my nearby Edgewater multiplex, where they have discount wednesdays. So I will certainly return here tomorrow to add my two cents.

  9. Yes, Hatter, this one makes for some fun debate. Elsewhere I have seen that my (our) alien theory is actually not universally held; others consider Steward to be more of a spiritual being with connections to the afterworld.

    In any case, no one has yet to explain to me why we should feel sorry for two people with "financial difficulties" who drive a late-model Corvette.

    Well, Sam, I did briefly see your rundown from the weekend (what was that, like 8 movies?) and am not surprised this one didn't make the cut. But I'll be interested to hear what you think. It's ripe for interpretation.

  10. Well Daniel, I did see it that night as I said I would, and even wound up with Lucille and all the kids for good measure. And I just read all this excellent commentary by The Mad Hatter, Fletch and Hokahey. I did NOT as you did Dan, find it as 'maybe the worst film of the year', as there is too much intrigue, and as you note the first part of the film is engrossing. The premise is actually a very good one--making that choice. But, yes it's rather a mess, and Kelly blew the opportunity for greatness. Lucille and the brood liked it. Go figure.

    I see you took a swipe at one of my ten favorite films of 2009, DISTRICT 9!!

    LOL!!! Just kidding. We have actually been in agreement quite a bit this year, my friend.

  11. We can leave D9 out of this one, Sam, and it's true, you and I have been on the same page for many other big movies this year.

    But alas, The Box disappointed me precisely because, as you point, the beginning was so engrossing and the premise was so solid to build from. And then Kelly just turned it into something bizarre and removed the appealing mystery for me. But if I was suspecting a dark suspense thriller or drama I probably should have looked elsewhere - Kelly is much more interested in the big ideas than the little details in life.

  12. I think It was an amazing movie. All of you that didn't like it probably weren't smart enough to understand the movie. Sometimes it's not bad for a movie to challenge you and make you think a little bit, that's what this movie did. Watch it again, the second time it might make a little more sense.

  13. Thanks for stopping by, Anonymous, but Inception this movie is not. I'm all for movies that challenge you and make you think a little bit, but it takes the intelligence of of a stone and the patience of a saint to sit through The Box. Good on Kelly for making an original movie in this age of sequels, but this was a real risk to take after Southland Tales. I don't know what's next for him but I'm not going to be nearly as excited for it as I was for this.


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