Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Some thoughts on THE BOX

Richard Kelly's THE BOX is not the end of the world as we know it, as some critics seemed to hint at during its release... but not as strongly as they felt that SOUTHLAND TALES was the End of the World, and probably the End of His Career - which is ironic considering that all of Kelly's films are definitely about The End of the World As We Know It. It's certainly not a career-killer, but it certainly was not the commercial property it was touted to be - although I bet it looked that way after the reception SOUTHLAND TALES got at Cannes, and he was pondering the choices available to avoid Movie Jail.

THE BOX is a much better movie than you'd think - like all of Kelly's films, it's bound to find more appreciative audiences watching it at home and other venues than it found in theatrical release. I liked this film - after the sprawling, overstuffed intentional train-wreck that ST was, Kelly scales things back to DONNIE DARKO size, character wise and plot wise. Kind of.

THE BOX is an adaptation of the Richard Matheson short story, "Button, Button". That story focuses on a wife who is presented with a mysterious box by a mysterious man who has a very simple proposition: if the wife or her husband presses the button on the box within 24 hours, they will receive a million dollars - and someone who they don't know will die. If you were around in the mid-80's, you'll remember that the story was adapted for the revived 1980's TWILIGHT ZONE series, with Mare Winneham and Brad Davis as the couple.

Go ahead and check it out... I'll wait.

In THE BOX, that couple is Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, both of whom are perfectly fine in the roles; and the mysterious stranger is Frank Langella, who's also very good. The adaptation of the story pretty much wraps up in the first 35 minutes of the film... actually, it's more like 25, if you strip away some extraneous scenes that have nothing directly to do with the story. The remaining 1 & 1/2 hours (it's just under a 2 hour film) concern themselves with the consequences of that action - Diaz presses the button, they get a million dollars, and someone dies, yes - but there's also Langella's bizarre deformity from a lightning strike, Diaz's club foot deformity, NASA, the Viking Mission to Mars, possible alien infiltration, glowing portals of water (yet again!), some self-conscious 70's referencing and science shotgun-wedded to the spiritual/biblical.

In other words, it's a Richard Kelly film melded to a Richard Matheson source, and as much as I do like the final product, it seems that the former overwhelms the latter. Which, is not really surprising, considering that a straight adaptation just really doesn't support a feature length film. What's curious to me, is that both adaptations really miss the point of the story.

"Button, Button", the Twilight Zone episode, would seem to be a perfect fit - but the only thing that connects, besides the really annoying performances by the leads is that ending. THE BOX gets the tone of the story right, for the dilemma presented to have some sort of weight, but muffs the story's ending in order to launch into the second part of the movie, where Kelly's main concerns are. Go look up Matheson's story - it's quite easy to find - to see that original ending and compare it to both adaptations.

I'd be willing to bet money that Kelly had his story - the one with the NASA stuff - already in mind, but couldn't find financing; and at some point, encountering the Matheson story, thought that it provided a strong enough hook to graft the other story onto. It's not done badly; that it works as well as it does proves that there was some skill involved. There's just something about it, though, that makes it clear that it's not a natural grafting of stories.

Which makes me think that Kelly just needed another source that would match up better with his creative concerns...

Unless you're a science-fiction fan of obscure movies, you know nothing of THE 27TH DAY. It hasn't been released in the USA in any format, although if you're under the age of 45, you might have caught it on television, in late night/early morning (when black and white movies instead of infomercials ruled the airwaves). Made and released in the late 50's, this always received glowing mention in most of the books about science-fiction films.

Written by John Mantley, (a writer who also produced shows such as 'Gunsmoke' and the second season of 'Buck Rogers' [The Disco Years], among others) based on his novel, THE 27TH DAY is about five people, from various countries, who are chosen by aliens from a dying world to be given a 'gift' - a capsule that, if activated within 27 days, will destroy all human life on the planet, leaving it open for colonization. If the capsules are not activated within that time, then life on the planet will be spared and the aliens will die. However, the aliens are certain that the capsules will be utilized, humans being what they are, and the people are returned to their countries to let the drama play out.

An obvious Cold War parable, THE 27TH DAY is memorable - director William Asher (who did the "Beach Blanket" movies and the BEWITCHED television movies in the 60's) makes the most of a limited budget and effects, and puts the emphasis on characters, Gene Barry (WAR OF THE WORLDS) and his co-stars' attempts to figure their way through this cynical game they've been placed into.

The movie is available on Spanish DVD -- but you can watch it in its entirety on YouTube in eight parts.

This, to me, seems like material that would have melded better with Kelly's intentions, and may have made for a more balanced viewing experience. Although, I'm not certain that anything that Kelly did would have been 'commercial' - his work isn't quite as easy to niche, which is what I do like about it, but the SOUTHLAND TALES experience coupled with the lukewarm response to THE BOX may have squelched anything to come from him for awhile.

I hope not.