It’s tough to be super-critical of “The Box,” because it’s the sort of movie that really does take chances, and it really wants to be the sort of horror movie whose story offers deep commentary on society and culture.
Most horror movies are satisfied, after all, with a mildly interesting concept (or a killer/slasher who wears a different sort of mask than we’ve seen before), a bunch of gore, maybe a boob shot, and a “shock/surprise” scene or two. Who cares about special effects, unless we’re talking about the creativity of the kills? Who cares about careful and patient plotting, about questions left unanswered because they are meant to inspire thought? Who cares about the cast, even, so long as the teenagers are good-looking?
But “The Box” is so ambitious that it takes a story that could have been told anytime, anywhere, and sets in the 1970s, perhaps in an effort to stay true to the original Richard Matheson story. The art direction, then, feels almost “Mad Men”-esque, with careful attention to color in clothing, wallpaper, furniture, and vehicles. In fact, there’s even a “Zodiac” angle to the film, as a great deal of its tension is heightened by the absence of technology (cell phones, cable TV, internet). “The Box” is even an ambitiously casted horror film, offering us not just Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, but a host of other character actors, from Frank Langella and James Rebhorn to Celia Weston, actors and actresses who bring credibility to the film. You get the impression that the entire crew really really cared about this movie, that they thought it might be something special.
But it’s not. That’s the problem. “The Box” begins with an interesting premise, one that’s revealed in all of the trailers and publicity materials: a mysterious man delivers to a suburban couple a box that, if its button is pressed, will give the couple a million dollars, but will also cost the life of someone they don’t know. Interesting material for a terrifying psychological thriller…and yes, there’s all sorts of potential for sharp commentary, if only the movie could stay focused.
Unfortunately, it quickly descends into a “Plan 9 From Outer Space” plot. Yes, this is much slicker than an Ed Wood film, with a much bigger budget, and high degree of technical achievement, but we go from Couple with a Box and a Choice to: man struck by lightning to give him superpowers, hordes of puppet-people who can be possessed and manipulated, communication with something on Mars, weird off-exit hotel with walls of tin foil, Stargate-style gateways to the “other side,” boxes of water that float above beds, and NASA and military intrigue. It’s so much, and it’s so ridiculous, that we wind up exhausted from all of it, unable to maintain our waning emotional attachment to the married couple at the center of the film.
In the end, I admired the energy behind “The Box,” the dedication and the love that the filmmakers had, but it’s just a hokey B-movie that doesn’t realize it’s a B-movie. It wants to be something much more grand, much deeper. Really, then, it’s a problem of tone: this movie chose to be dark and brooding and thoughtful, when perhaps it could have been successful if it had tapped into the bizarre and maybe had fun with it.