Over the last several years, Cameron Diaz has quietly transitioned from making silly romantic comedies into a variety of roles in heart-tugging dramas or in the case of The Box, interesting sci-fi films. Don't get me wrong, she makes a rom-com every now and again to get paid, but this film, along with My Sister's Keeper, were her only film appearances in 2009. While the execution of some of these films may be misguided, I can respect her.
In The Box, directed and written by Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) who wrote the screenplay based on "Button, Button," a short story by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend). Set in 1976 Virginia, Diaz plays Norma, a teacher at a private school attended by her son. Her husband Arthur (James Marsden, 27 Dresses) works for NASA at the Langley Research Lab that was involved with the Viking Project that photographed Mars, but his ultimate goal is to be an astronaut.
Things change when Norma and Arthur find a mysterious package left on their doorstep, along with a note saying a Mr. Steward will visit them later that day with instructions. The package holds a wooden box topped with what looks like an ejection button. Mr. Steward (Frank Langella, (Frost/Nixon) visits as promised and discusses the proposal that goes along with the box; if Norma and Arthur press the button, they will receive a million dollars, but somewhere, someone they do not know, will die. The family goes through additional financial hardship, making the decision to press or not to press all the more difficult, but the box is part of a larger plan that is far bigger than they or anybody else could have expected.
Based on the initial premise, it does make for an interesting analysis of a moral dilemma and appeals to the viewer. And Kelly allows time in the film for them to make their decision, slowly revealing what a solid foundation of love and care this family is operating under. Early in the film, we learn that Norma suffers from a foot deformity, the result of a careless X-ray technician. Arthur is so devoted to her than he spends time at working, using NASA-grade material to create a prosthetic. You can see and understand why they're in love.
Kelly not only establishes the relationship well, but he handles the consequences of pressing the button just as effectively. Rather than employ cheap gimmickry to scare the crap out of you, he sticks to the period and uses visuals that are simple yet chilling, like someone's nose bleeding or someone looking at Norma from outside the house. You could watch this film and Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and not bat an eye. Kelly is that convincing with the period.
However, while the first two acts of the film are fairly solid, the final act seems to collapse under the weight of the actions wrought by Arthur and Norma. Rather than focusing on these two and their choices, more time is spent on Steward, his experiences, and his implausible existence. And a journey that Arthur takes, in which he encounters the afterlife, takes the goodwill of the "less is more" approach of visual effects to a sillier level. It is like driving down a winding road next to a beautiful woman who is whispering directions in your ear. The problem is she waits until the last second to tell you the brakes are out.
Diaz' performance in the film isn't bad, in fact, both her and Marsden present quality performances, and each appears to care about the film they were making. But in The Box, where the first 70 minutes were dedicated to older school sci-fi, and the last 40 were a mishmash of Close Encounters meets X-Files, the end result readily cheapened what could have been an exciting product.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Warner presents The Box in a VC-1 encoded 2.35:1 widescreen, and the results aren't bad. Kelly appears to have intentionally overdone the whites, and many shots look like overhead lighting from fluorescents that had been used as lighting. The result appears intentional and is a nice aesthetic to go with the period. Skin tones look fine, and blacks are a little more inky than I was expecting, and there's a think layer of film grain present without being a distraction. Solid work from Warner.
In a slightly curious decision, Warner decided to go with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack over the usual TrueHD work. Normally, I wouldn't have an issue with that, but there's very little action employed over the soundstage, though a sequence with some water columns provides good oomph for the subwoofer. Dialogue is the big frustration here, as the volume is inconsistent on occasion during the second act. This lossless track felt wasted in the film, and it was disappointing to listen through.
A quick word on the discs; Warner touts this has a BD/SD/Digital Copy pack, which includes all three versions of the film for the buyer. They have taken the SD version and included it on the disc housing the digital copy. Kudos for taking up less shelf space, Warner.
Otherwise, there are not too many extras on the film itself. Kelly provides a commentary in which he explains the reasons and motivations for some of the story ideas, some of the CG enhancements made for the film and the sci-fi themes it shares. He also discusses how personal and even semi-autobiographical the story components are to him. He stays active through most of the track, which is commendable as it's a solo effort, and it's worth listening to whether you like the film or not. From there, "Grounded In Reality" (10:42) explains just how personal the film is to Kelly, with recollections about his discovering the story when he was young and interviews with his parents, who served as the basis for the Diaz and Marsden characters. Kelly's father discusses his role in the Viking project, his mother mentions the accident that caused her to lose several toes on one foot, and they are both genuinely touched by how much experiences in their lives have affected their son in his thoughts for the film. It's a nice angle that I wasn't expecting.
The rest of the extras are forgettable. "In His Own Words" (4:54) features an 83-year-old Matheson who discusses writing when he was growing up and its importance to him now, along with the fans he encounters. Three visual-effects breakdowns follow (3:55), covering the water columns, Steward's face and how they made Boston look like Virginia. Lastly, three music videos (9:14), which are actually the film's score set over additional footage, are included.
The Box does make for an interesting internal analysis, but it seems to forget that it's a science fiction film of sorts, and paying little attention to that in the middle stanza doesn't mean you can overcompensate in the final one. That takes away from solid rumination on the effects of seemingly harmless decisions. Technically, it's fine, and from an extras perspective, I like what Warner decided to do with the whole BD/SD/Digital copy dilemma. If you're looking for a change of pace from the normal sci-fi or Diaz film, this is definitely worth watching, though it's ending can stop you from buying it, or watching it again, for that matter.