Amidst all of the 1970s space launches, bad sitcoms and mud-ugly fashions live Arthur and Norma Lewis with their son Walter. They’re a fairly typical American family that loves life … and spends just a tad too much to make it comfortable.
The Box opens with NASA scientist Arthur learning he’s been denied a long-awaited promotion. And Norma finding out that the private school she teaches at won’t be giving tuition discounts to faculty members anymore.
The Lewises aren’t flat broke, of course. If they were, Arthur wouldn’t be driving a new Corvette. But, like most of us, they’ve got a hankering for just a little more.
And then a strange little box supporting a bright red button arrives on their front stoop. And a well-dressed gent named Arlington James Steward comes calling later in the day. His offer is simple: Push the red button and you get $1 million. Oh, and somebody, somewhere will die. You won’t know them, Steward assures the stunned Norma. And if you don’t want the money—or murder on your résumé—all you have to do is wait for one day and keep your hands away from the button.
Steward tips his hat and gently warns Norma not to tell anyone of the offer or try to discover who he or his employers are.
[Note: The following sections include spoilers.]
This movie lays out a (not-really-so-complicated) moral maze and then uses a number of (sometimes incomprehensible) sci-fi twists and turns to illustrate the consequences of heading down the wrong corridor.
Arthur and Norma voice and demonstrate their deep love for each other and their son. (But it doesn’t stop them from continuing to make some really bad decisions.)
At the center of The Box’s significant spirituality is the issue of divine forgiveness. Simultaneously, it’s that very subject the film knows the least about.
"Can I be forgiven?" Norma tearfully asks Mr. Steward after the full weight of her sin has come to rest on her heart. (Yes, of course she pushed the button.) "I don’t know," he intones. The best he can do is quote the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: "There are two ways to enter the final chapter—free or not free. The choice is yours."
Revolving around forgiveness are allusions to original sin (with Norma as Eve and Arthur as Adam), questions of free will, lessons on our responsibility to others and a visual lecture on the wages of immoral choices. Clearly, the Lewises did the wrong thing, the movie tells us. But why does it tell us this? To what end are its philosophic statements made?
Alas, it doesn’t seem to know.
Salvation rests solely on the shoulders of the sinner here. The afterlife is a bright white obscuring light you’re emotionlessly told to walk into. "God" is either an alien from Mars or a scientific force indiscernible by our limited technologies. "It" sits in judgment of humanity, ostensibly searching for a few good men and women who might tempt it to stave off the apocalypse for at least a few more years.
Pretty much everybody is pushing those bright red buttons, though, so we’re not doing very well. We never have, of course. But in mixing sci-fi with a humanist theology, we’re not given a Savior (or even any saviors) in The Box. We’re just plopped down in front of an impersonal judge and jury.
It might not even be our good works that can save us, come to think of it. It might just be dumb, blind luck. Because when Arthur is given the choice of stepping into one of three identical-looking portals to … somewhere, he’s told that two of them lead to "eternal damnation" while one will restore him to life. Good luck, dude!
The best Norma and Arthur can do is talk briefly of their hope that the afterlife will be a pleasant place.
Norma gets in and out of bed several times in a cleavage-baring nightgown. She later wears a short slip while sitting at her dressing table. Several women at a wedding rehearsal wear ’70s style form-fitting outfits. There’s a wink-wink joke about taking nude pictures. And a student calls somebody a "slut."
We see a slain woman with blood weeping through her clothes from a bullet wound in her chest. Later, crime scene photos reinforce the image. Arthur and another man sit in a truck that’s smashed by a speeding snowplow. And the police remove a sheet-covered corpse from the scene.
A number of people under mind control have sudden nose bleeds (and in a few cases they also pass out and collapse). A man holds a gun to Arthur’s head and abducts him. A roomful of Steward’s mind-controlled "employees" (Steward seems to be a mid-level "test" manager of sorts) shamble after Arthur threateningly. Later some of those people kidnap Walter and render him unconscious.
Adding death to injury, Arthur pulls Norma close to him and shoots her through the heart. He’s doing it to save their son from a life of deafness and blindness (it’s another test), and Norma willingly lets him, but this is, again, a low rent sort of ethical dilemma and their choice can hardly be construed as either heroic or sacrificial. It can’t even really be thought of as Norma paying the final price for her sin. It is, as we’ve already said, just more pain and suffering and death on top of what’s already transpired.
Arthur forcefully grabs one of Norma’s students by the collar and slams him against a porch rail. Half of Mr. Steward’s face is badly scarred, the result of a (supernatural?) lightning strike.
Crude or Profane Language
One improper use each of "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑." Jesus’ name is abused four times; God’s a handful of times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Wedding guests (including Arthur and Norma) drink champagne, wine and mixed drinks. A rattled Arthur grabs a bottle of whiskey from his home bar and tries to calm himself with a glassful.
Several folks smoke cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
A dazed, zombie-like man peeps into Norma’s window staring openmouthed at her from the back yard. One of several jolting jump scenes involves a woman suddenly reviving after Arthur thinks she’s dead.
Upon first opening it, The Box looks to be little more than a throwback thriller from the 1970s it depicts. In fact, the tale is based on an obscure story that was once made into a Twilight Zone episode.
That throwback style means foul language is kept largely in check (save the misuses of the Lord’s name). And even the violence is tamped down. The ominous tone—driven in large part by the musical score—feels like it was pulled from some old Hitchcock film that we might have missed along the way.
But then The Box gets kicked into the land of shambling mind-controlled zombies and 2001: A Space Odyssey-style aliens. And if that’s not enough to indicate that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill matinee morsel, consider the moral questions it poses: Can humankind rise to the level of putting aside personal desires for the wellbeing of others? What do we really hold as valuable in our lives? Are we aware enough to see that our foolish choices can damage others as much as they do us?
The answers, by the way, are no, money and no. They’re not posited as intractable, though. The Box might not have a clue about how we’re to change, but it sure would like for us to try anyway.
That sentiment is most evident in a scene where Norma gently tells Steward that his horribly scarred face actually caused her to look outside her own self-pity. She didn’t find him fearsome or grotesque. Instead her heart went out to him for his courage. It’s a stirring and thought-provoking moment.
But it’s also only a bootstraps kind of moment.
For all its ambitious potential, the last thirty minutes spent trapped inside The Box severely disappoints. It’s asked its questions. It’s played its tricks. And then it self-consciously clears its cinematic throat and moves on to the credits, hoping we won’t notice. Can Norma find forgiveness in this life? Obviously not. Will she find it in the next? Who knows. The Box hasn’t been programmed to deliver any data on that mystery.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Cameron Diaz as Norma Lewis; James Marsden as Arthur Lewis; Frank Langella as Arlington Steward; Sam Oz Stone as Walter Lewis
Richard Kelly ( )
November 6, 2009
February 23, 2010