May 17, 2010

[Movies] The Box (2009)

The Box (2009)I will never understand why the notion of a short story being adapted to film tends to scare me more than it excites me. I guess there's just something short stories that tends to involve significant re-writing or Hollywood "enhancement" in order to make up the full movie run time. There are cases when the short story provides enough of a background to justify a movie but thus tends to be the exception more than the rule.

When adapting a short story into a full-length movie, you either embellish the portrayal with lots of dramatic shots and tension-building moments in order to eat up the time. Or you try the character enhancement route by fleshing out the players more and giving them more back story than existed originally. Then there's the addition of new plot threads that either run in parallel with the main arc or extend beyond the original ending of the story. The more radical efforts to come up with enough material for a movie tend to have more unpredictable results in terms of the final product.

This was definitely one of those times when I was pretty disappointed with how he movie turned out, especially given the talent behind it. This probably stresses the point that success is not at all formulaic nor is it easily repeated.

SAN DIEGO - JULY 24:  (L-R) Director Richard K...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The Box is a 2009 adaptation of the Richard Matheson short story, "Button, Button". The movie was written and directed by Richard Kelly of Donnie Darko fame.

The movie follows young couple Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) who are struggling to make ends meet. All that stands to change after they receive a mysterious package on their doorstep and a note indicating that a Mr. Steward (Frank Langella) will visit them at 05:00pm. The package contains a wooden box with a red button sealed underneath a glass dome, When he does arrive, he explains that the offer before them is simple - press the button and someone they don't know will die and then they will be rewarded with one million dollars. They have until 05:00pm the next day to come to a decision about the offer after which Mr. Steward will arrive, take the box, reprogram it and make the offer to someone else.

The movie could have ended with this initial moral dilemma, but then that would just recreate the episode of The Twilight Zone in the 80's that also tried to adapt the same short story. Instead Kelly opted to go further, and this is where the trouble really starts in terms of how this movie turned out. It was almost as if he wanted to recapture the same cult following that he managed with Donnie Darko, which is probably not a bad goal. The problem is that he decided to revisit elements of Darko in this movie, turning them into tropes rather than triggering a sense of appreciative nostalgia.

Such elements include (1) vague messages of aid / assistance from strangers as pseudo-prophecy, (2) CGI water constructs, (3) water as a medium for travel, (4) a manual meant to explain everything and probably a few more that I missed.

The treatment and style of the movie was interesting since it did have that retro feel to things. It was clearly a nod to older horror / psychological thriller movies and it managed this aspect of things quite well. I certainly appreciated the effort put into setting the tone for this movie and had the plot made more sense as a whole, it really would have paid off. Seriously, the movie had a lot of potential here for some great storytelling and it did have some very good moments. However when taken as a whole, the end result remains somewhat lacking and certainly disappointing.

The Box is another example of how overeager writing and ruin what is essentially a good story at its core. It gets 2 no longer surprising nosebleeds out of a possible 5.

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