Pushing a few of the right buttons and plenty of the wrong ones, “The Box” reps a dicey mainstream effort by enfant terrible Richard Kelly following the doomed exploits of 2006’s “Southland Tales.” Expanding a Richard Matheson story into a ’70s-set thriller in which a couple is besieged by space-age conspiracies, nose-bleeding zombies and quotations from Jean-Paul Sartre, the pic reveals the hazards of taking “Twilight Zone” material too far and too seriously. Still, Kelly’s trademark mix of sci-fi, surrealism and suburbia occasionally entertains, while Cameron Diaz should carry the cult helmer into more commercial playpens. Warner Bros. release opens Oct. 29 in Australia and bows Nov. 6 Stateside.
Matheson’s enormous oeuvre has spawned a truckload of films (including the recent “I Am Legend”), while his short story “Button, Button” was already adapted into an episode of the ’80s reboot of “The Twilight Zone” series. Kelly claims to have discovered the tale’s wicked premise — a couple is offered a sum of money if they push a button that will kill a complete stranger — on TV, but his adaptation goes way beyond both the teleplay and Matheson’s text toward weirder, wilder and, apparently, autobiographical areas.
Setting the action — which takes place entirely in 1976 — in and around NASA’s Langley Research Center and its neighboring Virginian ‘burb, Kelly returns to his “Donnie Darko” roots by depicting an all-American family succumbing to paranormal forces, with several nods to the styles and sounds of the epoch.
Had this been the center of the movie, rather than an increasingly murky plot that attempts — via lightweight existentialism and only so-so special effects — to explain the meaning behind the titular object, Kelly might have pulled off the experiment. Instead, he widens his scope to cover far too many happenings, conspiracies and cultural artifacts, while his characters fail to be compelling as they get knocked around by the unknown.
Once the box is left on the doorstep of Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) and his wife, Norma (Diaz), the film proceeds to explain their motivations for pushing the button. Arthur, an inventor responsible for optics on the Mars Landing Program, is passed up for a promotion to astronaut. Norma, a lit teacher with a (literal) club foot, learns that her faculty status will no longer grant their son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone), a discount on his private-school tuition.
Although these are clearly not the best reasons to kill another person, Norma winds up doing the deed, and someone across town immediately drops dead. This seems to please the device’s ominous creator, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), who dresses snappily to disguise the gaping hole in the side of his face and soon shows up at the Lewises’ with their $1 million prize.
From thereon, the couple’s guilt propels Arthur to investigate the box’s origins, and things begin spinning in confusing circles that involve NASA, the NSA, tales of kidnapped children, lots of people with nosebleeds and hordes of zombified civil servants. Meanwhile, Steward’s antics start to resemble the moralizing “games” of “Saw’s” Jigsaw, leading to a nasty closing dilemma.
Despite the overkill, Kelly gains some arresting imagery from his multiple plotlines, with d.p. Steven Poster and production designer Alexander Hammond providing a groovy monotone look, replete with ’70s gadgets and backed by Arcade Fire’s retro score. A disturbing wedding rehearsal dinner, which appears early on, highlights Kelly’s talent for inserting absurd and paranoid elements into seemingly normal events.
Performances are characterized by a certain nostalgic stiffness, resembling those of the TV shows (“What’s Happening!!”, “Alice”) seen in the background, that keeps the viewer at a distance. Langella’s Steward particularly feels like the product of another era, and his diabolical wizard is far from terrifying, especially when he starts quoting Sartre.
Indeed, the French philosopher’s concept of free choice seems to be one of several themes driving the narrative. But they all feel cobbled together in an effort to show how good Kelly is at thinking out of “The Box,” when what’s really needed is a glimpse inside at something more credible and engaging.