The UHF of the film world.
Latest news

Christopher Webster [Celluloid 11.12.09] movie review scifi thriller



Year: 2009
Directors: Richard Kelly
Writers: Richard Kelly
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: agentorange
Rating: 9 out of 10

Richard Kelly channels no less than the ghost of Stanley Kubrick to turn Richard Matheson's blip of a Twilight Zone idea into one of the most astounding pieces of cerebral science fiction cinema I have ever seen. Yes, The Box is that good. It dares to scale the same intellectual heights as 2001: A Space Odyssey and it revels in the potent, restrained formalism of The Shining without ever leaving its two main characters or plot too far behind. In fact, Kelly is so self assured in executing this delicious layer-cake of a movie that The Box is now a front runner for my choice of best film of the year (yep, move over MOON) and I absolutely can't wait to see it again so I can dig even deeper into its box of mysteries.


I'll be the first to admit that Kelly's second feature, Southland Tales, was a confused and self-indulgent mess of a masterpeice. It's as though everything he needed was right in front of him, but he just didn't have the experience to know how to arrange the pieces of the puzzle, leaving the viewer consistently two steps behind and more than a little confused. With The Box, Kelly has found the magic formula, proving that he can indeed balance dramatic storytelling and heady subject matter without veering too far into the realms of self-conscious obtuseness. And actually, if there's a flaw in this film I'd say it's that Kelly actually goes too far in explaining himself towards the end of the film. Some aspects should have been left to the audience to argue about on the way home from the cinema.

The story begins with Norma and Arthur Lewis finding a mysterious box with a button in it on their front porch. A note saying they should expect a visit from a Mr. Steward at 5:30 that evening accompanies it. When he arrives, he tells them that if they push the button, someone they don't know will die and they will receive 1 million dollars (tax free). Seems like your typical morality game doesn't it? Except who is running it?

*Warning: Possible Spoilers Ahead*

Neither one of them suspects that Mr. Steward has actually been watching them through the eyes of the people they know for some time and that they have been chosen to be the subjects of a cosmic experiment of the grandest possible design. Remember the monolith in 2001? Well, whoever, or whatever, that was is essentially who is running the show here and Steward is working for them. It's as though the very spark of life, the rulers of all those intangible truths we search for through philosophy are the master manipulators of our little lives. Call them Gods if you must, aliens if it helps you sleep at night, but whoever it is is so far beyond our comprehension in such a profound way that no mere film could possibly contain the understanding of it. So please forgive Kelly if you feel like some mundane cinematic plot formula isn't completely fulfilled when you watch this film for the first time. What he is trying to discuss here is so much bigger than the trappings of mainstream movie making it boggles the mind. In that sense, The Box is a film that can - and should - be viewed multiple times.

Some critics have complained about the pacing and acting in the film and to address that I can only go back to Kubrick for a moment. Think about the deliberate pacing and epicly slow line delivery he makes us endure during the first act of his sexual fantasy film, Eyes Wide Shut. Or the outlandish theatrics of Alex and his droogies in A Clockwork Orange. Naturalism isn't always the most powerful form of cinema and I think this is a big reason why Kelly is so controlling over his performances (which are all great) and why he sets the film in a plastic-fantastic 1970s fantasy wonderland- chock full of period minutia, yet not quite real.

Think of The Box as the direct oposite of the world David Fincher created in Zodiac. Rather than striving for an accurate period movie, Kelly uses the 70s to achieve a great metaphoric purpose. See, the moral idealism of the 1960s were over by this time and America was in a period of transition, teetering on a cultural and technological precipice. We put a man on the moon for god's sake! We're the pinnacle of evolution! We're invincible, right? But is "progress" blinding us to our true place in the universe's grand plan? Even more intimately, is it pulling us away from truly knowing anyone, including the people closest to us? Enter Jean Paul Sartre's "hell is other people" and the mad thinking of Arthur C. Clarke. If The Box is a film about the complexities of moral thinking and our achillies heel ,the human ego, than this seventies theme-park is a perfect setting (particularly since we all know the direction the human race went).

My brain is reeling because all this stuff is really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of all the ideas Kelly's crammed into this truly unique science fiction masterpeice. I haven't even touched on what's going on in terms of domestic gender dynamics or economic repression vs moral decision making.

In terms of this as a piece of entertainment, Kelly hits all the marks. While it may confound in parts, it's certainly never dull. The big difference between a film like this and some fluffy scifi thriller like Eagle Eye, is that Kelly is not satisfied to have his characters simply chase CIA spooks around for an hour just to uncover some sort of been-there-done-that government conspiracy. He wants to take them to the edge of Nietzsche's abyss and give them a glimpse of what's on the other side. He's truly shed the teen angst of Donnie Darko, learned from his mistakes on Southland Tales and joined the ranks of cinema's greatest masters.

To end I'd like to quote Roger Ebert who said "many viewers will hate The Box. What can I say? I'm not here to agree with you." Well said Roger.

You might also like

avatar

quietearth (9 years ago) Reply

While I don't think it's the best film of the year, I agree it's great.. not to the level of Donnie Darko though. This clearly shows Kelly is a master director.

avatar

Kurt (9 years ago) Reply

Clearly Mr. Orange, you are insane on this one. Nearly every element in the film is non-synchronous with every other element and not in a good way.

avatar

agentorange (9 years ago) Reply

Like what?

avatar

Michael Bartlett (9 years ago) Reply

WOW - I was going to give this a miss, but after that review I will be first in line at the theatre.

avatar

agentorange (9 years ago) Reply

@ Michael

The writer in you will love it I think. The filmmaker in you may think "I'd have done that differently." However you slice it though, it's a smart movie. You should dig it.

avatar

Anonymous (9 years ago) Reply

Wow a positive review. So that makes it positive reviews, 3, negatives reviews, 7 million.

avatar

agentorange (9 years ago) Reply

Well, when one of the film's supporters is Roger Ebert I'd say I'm in good company ;)

avatar

Anonymous (9 years ago) Reply

I guess that makes me number 3. I loved it. I never thought I'd say this, but... Stanley Kubrick might not be dead after all. I hope Kelly keeps up the great work.

avatar

kurt (9 years ago) Reply

Agentorange, Andrew & myself go over the film quite thoroughly over at rowthree.com in the latest podcast. Too much exposition, not enough narrative glue, and just a tad too much borrowing from Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The character motivations are contrived and shackled to plot in infuriating ways and I simply cannot buy Ms. Diaz teaching Sartre. the choice at the end and the resolution are shakey and the afterlife stuff makes little sense and is too quick to be evokative of much beyond plot contrivance. The Kid was awful and pointess other than to provide plot motiviations from the main characters.

If you want 'the next Kubrick' watch Jonathan Glazer's Birth which gets it all right down to the soundtrack, the menace and the metaphysical; rather than The Box which is bloated and ugly and rather pointless.

avatar

agentorange (9 years ago) Reply

Kurt said: "the choice at the end and the resolution are shakey and the afterlife stuff makes little sense and is too quick to be evokative of much beyond plot contrivance."

Respectfully disagree. The resolution is what made the film for me. The decision the couple makes has real consequences unlike the decisions we all make everyday.

It's a dire ending to be sure, but it pulls everything together nicely. Also, calling the portal stuff at the end "the afterlife" is not giving it enough consideration. It's the end of 2001, not some pedestrian notion of heaven he's shown.

Plot contrivances? Sure there are a few, but not more than most films. D9's magic black liquid is one giant plot contrivance but nobody cared there.

Respect your opinions though boys. I'll def be tuning into the podcast to hear your thoughts in detail. I mean, I knew this was going to be a controversial endorsement ;)

avatar

Michael Bartlett (9 years ago) Reply

Cool! Now I have BIRTH to look forward to as well. Anything that has the tag 'the next kubrick' gets my attention.

avatar

Anonymous (9 years ago) Reply

gaspar noe's soudain le vide sure is the best film of the year. i ve seen extracts of this. its appauling. i loved donnie darko. saw glimpses of hope in southland tales but this is a complete and utter failure!

avatar

Anonymous (9 years ago) Reply

Some movie are entertaining but empty. Some are full of ideas and boring. The Box is in the middle. I liked it.

avatar

Kurt (9 years ago) Reply

I agree with Enter The Void endorsement too, it's thus far easily my favourite film of the year. A theatrical experience is a must, and it is the closest film I've seen to 2001: A Space Odyssey in some time.

I had many problems with DS9's plot contrivances as well. Not that I'm a person hung up on plot, but when a film drops most of its ideas be an action flick, it often loses me. I liked DS9 more than The Box, but that film is not without some serious 'flaws' as well.

I wish THE BOX did more with the Arthur C. Clark quotation and pushed the envelope a little further than simply a 'step into one of these three boxes, two will kill you, one will not. You don't have a choice in the matter' It was more WTF than profound. More than a little clumsey in my opinion!

avatar

agentorange (9 years ago) Reply

Well I haven't seen "Enter the Void" yet or "The Road," two films that could definitely end up getting my vote too if what I'm hearing is true.

Also, Joko Anwar's "Forbidden Door" is a serious contender. http://tinyurl.com/yjan9a4

Regardless of our various opinions of some of these great films, I'd say 2009 was an amazing year for genre cinema. At least filmmakers tried to achieve something we haven't seen in a long time... originality.

avatar

Anonymous (9 years ago) Reply

Simply put, the worst widely-released film of the year, and an insult to Matheson's elegantly simple and very human tale.

'Kubrick' my arse.

avatar

Pat (9 years ago) Reply

just put all your efforts and money into seeing enter the void. in cinema that is. it will make your year. i promise. this... cmon. I SO WANTED TO LIKE IT. but no way. cant everyone just realise richard kelly isnt as good as we all hoped after seeing donnie darko??

avatar

Anonymous (9 years ago) Reply

You are right about The Box, it's very trippy. Kind of a Proyas and Lynch vibe.

But, I can see where it's just too heavy for most audiences

avatar

pat (9 years ago) Reply

http://uk.movies.yahoo.com/blog/article/8427/the-boxthe-worst-film-in-recent-years.html

i obv dont give a crap about yahoo ratings or reviews nor do i remotely agree with the article...but it is funny. however donnie darko screwed up in the same way in cinemas so maybe this is a good sign after all?

avatar

Marina (9 years ago) Reply

In my books - agentorance nailed everything I like about this film and even touched on some of the other issues (the gender issue is one that I can't seem to shake) that THE BOX brings up. Easily one of my faves of 2009.

avatar

bolgesel haber (9 years ago) Reply

fear and stress like an elephant style .... If you want to watch lost no time

avatar

Anonymous (9 years ago) Reply

Sucked! Big time! Pretentious mess, pretentious director with nothing to say or offer. Have you noticed that he did not merely make people dislike his movie, he pissed people off. Just read what "movie oracle" said, very rarely movie gets F. People are pissed, me included!

avatar

JC (9 years ago) Reply

It left me feeling empty and I really didn't care for it either. I did enjoy Donnie Darko and saw where he was going but it just didn't have the wit that Donnie did. I'll have to view it again for the helluva it.

avatar

The box hater (9 years ago) Reply

I'd recommend this movie to anyone in search of a cure for insomnia. As for entertainment, sorry it was god awful. I hope richard Kelly and agentorange are shot, and soon, so the former can't make another movie like this and the latter can't write a similar review promoting it to the innocent public.


Leave a comment