A big red button marked "WTF" ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Monday, November 23, 2009

A big red button marked "WTF"

The Box
My rating:

I have not watched Donnie Darko. This is a somewhat embarrassing admission, since that film was one of the cooler cult hits of the decade, and its reputation as a sci-fi mindbender is something that's right up my alley. I'd love to rectify this, but damned if I can't find the DVD anywhere. (I've not seen Southland Tales, Kelly's other film, either - and that one has a reputation of being really really bad.) So I went into this latest film by Richard Kelly not knowing a thing about what to expect, other than that it's another sci-fi mindbender...

...and I got my mind bent all right. And not in a good way.

Arthur Lewis (Richard Marsden) works at NASA, his wife Norma (Cameron Diaz) is a schoolteacher, and they have a son named Walter (Sam Oz Stone). One day a hideously disfigured man named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) gives them a box with a button, and offers them a deal: if they press the button, they will be given one million dollars, but someone whom they don't know will die. Their financial worries convince them to press the button - but the consequences are more dire (and very much weirder) than they could imagine, due to the machinations of Steward's mysterious "employers".

I'm a smart guy. No, really. I can follow a complicated train of thought, hold two opposing ideas simultaneously, and make a logical deduction from two or more premises. In other words, I can figure stuff out. (And sometimes I even get it right.) And I reckon I did manage to figure out what Steward is up to, who he was and who he is now, why he does what he does, who he works for and why they're doing what they're doing. The hints are all there, and they're not at all hard to spot if you're as familiar with sci-fi tropes as I am. But what I can't figure out is why what happens in this film happens.

Hmm, let me explain that sentence. Y'see, there's a mystery in this movie, and by movie's end the mystery is pretty much explained. But there's also a plot, and the plot doesn't make any goddamn sense. After Arthur and Norma push the button, events around them get steadily weirder, and it's all quite effective filmmaking; there's a palpable sense of unease and paranoia, and it's all pretty engrossing. The central moral dilemma of the premise is a fascinating one, and all credit to veteran sci-fi author Richard Matheson for his 1970 short story "Button, Button" - it was made into a segment of the 1985 season of The Twilight Zone, and this movie is based on both. Both were pretty short, however - you can find out how they ended here - so what Kelly has done is expanded them greatly, building an entire mythology around the mysterious stranger with the box.

But he seemed to forget that a mythology isn't much use without a story to go with it - and it all just seems like one WTFery after another without any rhyme or reason. At one point, Arthur is made to take another test, in which he is told the stakes are his very "salvation" or "damnation" - and the test is completely arbitrary. And earlier in the film, one of Norma's students humiliates her by asking to see her disabled foot, and there's just no reason why she should accede to such a snotty little kid. These aren't questions that can be satisfactorily answered by "there are ineffable forces at work, woooo". They really just smack of contrived storytelling and weirdness for the sake of weirdness.

A big part of why the movie still works as well as it does is Frank Langella. He's a veteran character actor who's done heaps of genre films, and he does this great understated menace thing that's perfect for sci-fi/fantasy/horror villains. Anyone else in the role might've turned the character of Steward, and the entire movie, into a cheesy joke. Marsden and Diaz hold their own, despite Diaz's unfortunate decision to adopt an annoying Southern accent - they effectively play ordinary, decent-but-flawed people who earn your sympathy as they go through a harrowing experience.

I saw some people leave before the movie ended, so this reviewer is probably right - Malaysian audiences just aren't sophisticated enough for this kind of stuff. I'd love to have been able to lord my own smartness over them, if only this was a better movie - if only there was more there there. Maybe Kelly wanted to preserve some of the mysteries; maybe he wanted his ineffable forces to still remain ineffable, after all the hints that he's dropped. I can dig that, actually. I don't mind if you leave some questions unanswered - but don't give me the impression that you're raising a whole bunch of them just for the hell of it.

NEXT REVIEW: A Christmas Carol
Expectations: when are you going to make a real movie again, Mr. Zemeckis?


theeggyolks said...

might go for this movie next week :)

McGarmott said...

Well, go watch Donnie Darko and see what you think. As I said I didn't like it. A director friend of mine insists that Southland Tales is brilliant though, "the most ambitious film ever attempt" or something along those lines. But word of caution - all Kelly's movies are similar in that they twist in every which direction, but doesn't quite deliver you an ending that wraps up all the intellectual concepts.

sgold73 said...

I'll have to see Moon if it's as mind-bending and thought-provoking as you say it is. I'll have to watch that one when I get a chance.

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