The Box

Once upon a time, a man named Richard Matheson wrote a short story called “Button, Button,” and it was good. Sixteen years later, that story was rewritten for the small screen as an episode of the Twilight Zone, and it was still pretty good. Now, it’s been rewritten yet again for the big screen, as The Box, and frankly, it’s pretty awful.
It’s Virginia, 1976, and Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden — Cyclops from the X-Men series of flicks) have two neat jobs (she teaches at a fancy private school, he works for NASA), a son named Walter (Sam Oz Stone), and a nice seventies house that’s all gold and orange and brown, with some of the scariest wallpaper I’ve ever seen.
But it isn’t all sweet and perfect. Norma limps, having lost part of her foot in a freak accident. Her boss has just informed her that she will no longer get the teacher’s discount for her son’s tuition. Arthur has just been told that his services as an astronaut will not be required, and he’s stuck staying as just a technician, working on cameras that will go into space without him.
Enter the terribly disfigured Arlington Steward (Frank Langella, Nixon from Frost/Nixon) and The Box of the title. It’s just a nice little polished wooden box, with a lockable glass lid and a bright, shiny, candylike red button beneath. He wakes up the Lewises at 5:45 in the morning so he can ruin their lives. His proposal is simple — if they press the button, he will give them one million dollars in crisp one hundred dollar bills. (Remember, these are 1976 dollars. A million means foot surgery for Norma, tuition for Walter, and plenty left over.) The catch? Someone, somewhere in the world, who the Lewises have never met, will die. They have 24 hours to decide. No pressure or anything.

James and Cameron discussing the moral dilemma of accepting money for their work on this film.

So far, it’s all just like the Twilight Zone, really. But they’ve got to fill up an entire movie-length time slot now, and this simple, clean little plot won’t do. So they add NSA agents, “employers” no one can talk about, “employees” that are a lot more like slaves, mysterious nosebleeds, bell-ringing Santas, water that has a mind of its own, and all the space craze of the seventies about getting to Mars and finding little green men, or at least the artifacts they left behind. Actually, I’m not sure what that last part has to do with anything, unless the “employers” are supposed to be Martians. Which would be silly, but then, that wouldn’t be unusual for this movie.
The acting is good. They do what they can with a script that buries all the good stuff under a pile of cryptic comments and random slack-jawed people staring at the main characters wherever they go. It’s supposed to be a character study, a test of what people will do when faced with a temptation that seems to have no real repercussions attached. And it tries to be. Cameron, James, and Frank are all acting their hearts out. But they couldn’t save the film, and by the end, I just didn’t care anymore what happened to anyone. I’m usually a credits watcher, but this time I bolted for the door. I’d already wasted too much of my Saturday afternoon by that point.
But I’ll be generous and give it two idols. Everyone on-screen does do their best with what they’ve got to work with, and it isn’t their fault that what they had was so dull. Apparently the screenwriter is also something of a misogynist, though I can’t talk about that without giving too much away. Anyway, if you feel the urge to watch it, might I suggest instead tracking down a copy of the 1986 Twilight Zone airing instead. Season one, episode twenty. The faces aren’t as recognizable, and the budget is tiny, but it’s a lot more entertaining.