Some movies, despite whatever virtues they possess, suffer from a fatal flaw that leads the reflective viewer to judge the movie an artistic failure. It’s hard to articulate the point precisely but I expect readers of this blog have experienced what I am alluding to–that moment during a movie, or afterwards, when you think: “Well, that just ruined it.” Such was my experience after recently seeing The Box, written and directed by the same guy who gave us the marvelous and original Donnie Darko.
The Box is a morality play, which might turn some off from the start but which doesn’t especially bother me. I read a lot of moral philosophy, so I’m able to find some morality plays interesting and provocative. The Box, it turns out, is neither, because of one fatal flaw.
Before getting to that, it will help to briefly summarize the plot. Early one morning in 1970’s Virginia a stranger leaves a box on the doorstep of a home belonging to a thirty-something couple with a young son (10 or 11, I would guess). The box has a large red button encased in glass, and comes with a key that will open its casing. The stranger returns later that day and makes the following offer to the couple. Push the button, and two things will happen. First, pushing the button will cause someone you don’t know to die. Second, the couple will receive a briefcase containing $1,000,000.
Who is this mysterious stranger, and what’s the point of this bizarre offer? It turns out that the mysterious stranger is an alien life-form that has taken over the body of a former NASA employee who was killed sometime earlier by a bolt of lightning (which bolts are presumably a means of travel for these aliens). The offer, we find out, is part of an ongoing experiment being conducted by the aliens. They wish to discover whether human beings are capable of altruism–or rather, whether they’re capable of putting the welfare of strangers above their own needs and desires. If it turns out that we are, the aliens will allow our civilization to continue. If it turns out that we’re not, the aliens will “expedite our extinction.”
Ok, so far, so–well, ok. But for some reason the aliens are not only conducting an information gathering project: they are also keen on punishing those human beings who decide to push the button. The punishment comes in the following form: after pushing the button and receiving their money, their child is later abducted and rendered blind and deaf. The couple is then faced with another choice: they can live the remainder of their lives with their sense-deprived child, or the partner who didn’t press the button can shoot the partner that did directly in his or her heart (in this way, button pushers are always the ones who die when subsequent button pushers make their fateful decision).
That should be enough background to understand my main complaint about this movie. After receiving the mysterious box and hearing the offer the young couple at the heart of the movie (well played, actually, by Cameron Diaz and James Marston) open up the box and find….nothing. The box is completely empty. The button sitting atop it connects to nothing–no wires, no devices, no computer chips, nothing. It seems to them, and for very good reason, that pushing that button couldn’t possibly harm anyone directly. Indeed, it seems to them, and for very good reason, that the stranger who brought the box couldn’t possibly know whether they did or did not in fact press the button. After staring at the box for several hours and wracking their brains about what this could possibly be about–a prank is the husband’s best guess–Cameron Diaz impulsively pushes the button. This is not a calculated move on her part. Her motivation in this scene seems more akin to the person who, gripped by a superstition that if he steps on a crack he’ll break his mother’s back, impulsively steps on a crack just to free himself from the grip of superstition.
At this point all hell begins to break loose. The stranger returns with their money, which they try to return because receiving the money lends credibility to the stranger’s claim that someone will in fact die. They pushed the button, but they certainly don’t want to hurt anyone. But the stranger refuses: they made their choice, and now they will have to suffer the consequences. They soon learn of a man in the neighborhood (who they did not know) who shot his wife in the heart just around the time they pushed the button. They’re terrified and confused. Later their son is abducted and, well, you know the rest.
Ok, so what’s the fatal flaw? I think it’s this: the alien claims to be conducting an experiment to test whether human beings are capable of overcoming their natural selfishness, and the fate of the human species depends on the results of this experiment. Yet the experiment is so ludicrously designed that they can’t possibly be garnering any reliably accurate information about human nature–or, they cannot distinguish evidence of impulsive curiosity from evidence of malicious greed. They give these boxes to otherwise decent couples who would NOT push the button if they had any reason whatsoever to think that doing so would actually cause someone to die–this is clear at least in the case of the couple at the heart of the movie–and then go on to wreak all sorts of havoc on the couple and the couple’s innocent child for their fateful choice.
So I’m left to wonder: we’re supposed to imagine an alien race so far advanced that they are capable of feats like mind-control, lightning travel, hardware-less technology, etc., yet they’re oblivious to the most basic principles of experimental design??? And once that thought occurred to me, the movie was ruined and seemed to me just plain dumb.