The Box is a 2009 science fiction/horror film based on the 1970 short story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson. It was written and directed by Richard Kelly, a story that had been previously adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone (1985), under the short story's original name, though with a different ending.
The story (which uses the Twilight Zone rewrite as the starting point) starts out with a simple premise — a married couple, Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) and her husband Arthur (James Marsden), who's lives have hit a major skid. Arthur is a NASA scientist with dreams of becoming an astronaut (and looking forward to the bump in pay from being picked to go out into space) while Norma is a private school teacher with a mangled foot. Their son goes to the exclusive school Norma teaches at, with the family getting a huge discount on tuition due to Norma's status as an employee. However, as the film starts out, Arthur is informed that he been rejected from receiving astronaut training, permanently stalling any hope of career advancement at NASA. Worse, Norma is informed by her employer that the private school is getting rid of the discount employees receive on their children's tuition, meaning that their son would have to start going to public school.
Their dreams of social mobility dashed, they receive a sudden visit from a man with a severely burned face named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella). Despite his frightening appearance, Steward is cordial towards them even as he makes a disturbing proposition to them: The couple is given a simple box with a button on it. If they push the button within the next twenty-four hours, they will receive $1 million in cash while a person that they don't know somewhere in the world, will die.
The film follows the Twilight Zone version of the story, where Norma pushes the button over her husband's moral objections and the family gets the money. However, as he takes the box away from them, Steward gleefully reveals that he will soon reset the box and offer it to another couple, who in turn be made the same offer, with it implied that it may be Norma and Arthur who dies next when a stranger presses the button.
And this is just the first act!
The remaining two-thirds of the film takes the story into a brand new Mind Screw direction, worthy of Richard Kelly's previous works. It is revealed that the "death" caused by the box was a man that murdered his wife in a nearby town. It is then revealed, as Arthur tries to find out more about Arlington Steward, that Steward has ties to NASA itself and a network of minions, who like Norma and Arthur, took the money and murdered someone for cash. Pressing the button effectively dooms one to be a servant of Steward and his wife, who we learn are working for Martians. The "box" is one of many "Sadistic Choice" scenarios that Steward and his alien masters are forcing humans worldwide to play, in hopes to decide whether or not humanity is worthy of being allowed to live.
Richard Kelly's involvement in the film came after the failure of "Southland Tales" cost him all of the creative capital he gained in Hollywood. While it retains his creative touches, in the expansion of the story, it was a box office flop and further sealed Kelly's fate as a flash in the pan director and writer. The film's suggestion that homicide is preferable to children having sensory disabilities was... not well-received, and the dissonance only grew as more stories of real-life murders of disabled people came to light.
No connection to 1967 cartoon short film The Box.
This film provides examples of:
- Adaptation Expansion: From five pages of story into 20 minutes of television into two hours of cinema.
- Adult Fear: The final choice. Goes badly off the rails when the real-life writers of the film make the apparent statement that a person with deafblindness would be better off if one of their parents murdered the other and went to prison rather than their child being disabled.
- Aliens are Bastards: The reason they were given the box? It's to determine whether humans are ultimately altruistic enough to be allowed to exist. They choose to investigate by putting people in a situation where, if they choose poorly, they have to kill twice. Once for the button push, and a second time to "atone" for it with spousal murder in order to save their child, something never mentioned in the original "deal". Yeah, good job testing high moral standards while being less than upstanding yourselves. If humanity does pass muster, you've got to wonder how exactly they'll be received by the public if these experiments come to light. Especially since the movie reveals the Aliens deliberately interfere in their lives and careers to try forcing the subjects into pressing the button.
- Big Red Button: The box features a prominent red button under the glass dome.
- Black and Gray Morality: Yep, pressing the button isn't a very nice thing to do. But the other side ("those who control the lightning") are far worse with their "human extinction" plan, their attempts to interfere with humans' lives to make them push the button, and probably the worst of all, blackmailing humans with their children's lives and health.
- Black and White Morality: Enforced by "Steward" and his "employers". Anyone who pushes the button is evil and must be used as statistics in supporting human extinction and anyone who doesn't push the button is good and must be enslaved. "Arlington Steward" even apologizes to the main couple, saying this is how it must be and it cannot be negotiated.
- Brainwashed: A disturbing number of people, causing some serious Hive Mind / Meat Puppet like action. The telltale indication is a bleeding nose after the fact.
- Briefcase Full of Money: This is how Mr. Steward offers his money. The $1,000,000 could readily fit in a briefcase with the $100 bills.
- Crapsack World: If you press the button, people will die. If you don't, you apparently get enslaved here and on another world.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Your wife made the choice to press the button. As a retribution, either you will have to kill her and go to jail (she's not even allowed to kill herself), or your child will be deafblind for life. Not to mention the "human extinction plan".
- Fantastic Aesop: If you're offered the choice of money via murder, don't take it. You will ultimately really regret your choice, because not only will it force you to kill your spouse and die/get sent to jail, but potentially doom the human race. Of course, if you know there's no repercussions, go right ahead.
- "Friends" Rent Control: Several people have pointed out that if the protagonists needed money, they could simply move from their massive house to a smaller place or sell one of their cars instead of fiddling with the murder box. However, you could argue that we were meant to see them as selfish jerks. This was averted in The Twilight Zone (1985) adaptation of the story where the leads live in a really crappy apartment.
- Gender Flip: In both versions, one of the spouses ultimately dies from the button being pressed. The gender changes from page to screen.
- God Is Evil: If we assume that "those who control the lightning" are godlike powers.
- Here We Go Again!: The ending.
- Humanity on Trial: Mr. Steward turns out to be an alien lifeform who has possessed a human body in order to administer a test to humanity in the form of the Box. He is looking to map an "Altruism Coefficient" by seeing how many people will choose to save others at cost to themselves. He tells a NASA scientist working with him that the test will determine whether humanity is viable or self-destructive, warning him that if they are the latter, then his employers will "facilitate your extinction."
- Karma Houdini: "Arlington Steward" and his "employers".
- Kubrick Stare: That freak kid at the party.
- Mind Screw: As Nathan Rabin put it best in his ''My Year of Flops'' entry on the movie: "The Box doesnt play fair. It begins with a relatively straightforward premise, then pulls the rug out from under the audience. Then it pulls out the floor, demolishes the building, and drops an atomic bomb on the block."
- Pop-Star Composer: The score is by Win Butler and Regime Chassagne of Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett.
- Red Right Hand: Mr. Steward's half burned face, which despite his lack of malice, is still played straight.
- Sadistic Choice: The obvious first one is bad enough—miss out on $1 million (and it's clearly shown they're not in good shape financially) or be responsible for someone's death. But it's the later one that really qualifies: let your son spend the rest of his life deafblind, or shoot your wife dead where she stands and he'll be cured. The husband tries to Take a Third Option, i.e. shoot the one forcing him to make the choice, but that person explains that he would then suffer the consequences of both choices, that is to say he'll still go to prison for murder and there'll be nobody to cure his son, and then those he answers will just send somebody else to replace the dead guy. And the last choice isn't even really in the husband's hands: someone else has been given the button... Oddly enough, that's a good thing, because it means that our "altruism coefficient" goes up by demonstrating they're both willing to sacrifice to help their son. It's possible if he hadn't shot her Mr. Steward would have had someone else killed. Probably one of the mind-controlled people.
- Schmuck Bait: The button. The original story was on that page long before the movie was conceived, so this is a no brainer.
- String Theory: The babysitter's motel room wall is covered with red string connecting pictures with cities on maps.
- Two-Faced: The messenger with his disfigured left cheek.