- 'THE BOX': James Marsden and Cameron Diaz star.
It may sound derogatory to say that “The Box” feels like an old “Twilight Zone” episode expanded to two hours. Unfortunately, that's maybe the nicest thing you can say for this mishmash. Is it an “Omelas”-influenced morality tale? A sci-fi suspense thriller with its shoelaces tied together? Maybe, but mostly it's a tacit cry for the return of new “Mystery Science Theater 3000” episodes.
Here's a Netflix-ready synopsis, because you're not paying to see this film: Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) awake one morning to find on their porch a mysterious wooden box with a shiny red button. A Brooks Brothers burn victim named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) makes the offer: push the button, someone somewhere dies — but you get a million bucks for taking the plunge(r).
Also, Norma has a mangled foot, Arthur works for NASA and Steward is some kind of lightning-infected Martian zombie who has lobotomized half of Richmond, Va., to puppeteer a plot to determine the worth of the human race by putting people up to shooting each other in the chest. Spoiler warning: They push the button. Not long after, they try to return the cash to a departing Steward, and soon you feel the same buyer's remorse. If you fork over $7 to see “The Box,” somewhere inside your head, brain cells will die.
The film is most disappointing in that bungles its profound ethical crux: What unseen, vicarious crimes are you willing to accept in exchange for material well-being? A bottle of red wine, a couple of friends, and this fuels a poignant discussion. Instead, we have to follow the thought process of Richard Kelly, the freshman year philosophy student turned director behind “Donnie Darko,” a similarly pretty but equally hollow attempted mind-screw. By the end of “The Box,” it's not even clear whether the titular device is reading people's actions or driving them, which undercuts the movie's very guts.
Thing is, Kelly came close to making a movie worth the benefit of a re-watch. As a period piece — it's set in 1976 — the movie is convincing; some of the visual effects are borderline brilliant; and there are times during its cockamamie unspooling when you hope it's all going somewhere. Those hopes implode when “The Box” reaches one of the more nonsensical, slapdash, illogical climaxes in memory. If you ever find yourself shouting at hysterical characters, “Haven't you people heard of Helen Keller?” be assured the thriller you're watching is too stupid for charity.