In 1971, two groups of college students were confined to the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building as part of a study by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. After a coin flip, one group was assigned to be “prisoners” while the other became the “guards.” The two groups were to remain in their roles for 14 days, but the exercise lasted only six. It ended after the guards began brutally beaten the prisoners when they began showing signs of depression and stress.
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Today, no psychological study of this magnitude could ever be conducted for obvious moral and ethical reasons. But Director Richard Kelly (“Donnie Darko”) still explores this notion of questioning human morality in his new film, “The Box.”
In the film, a young financially burdened couple receives a mysterious package on the doorstep. Upon opening it, they discover a wooden box, completely plain save for a red button at the top. They are told that two things will happen if they press the button. First, somebody random who the couple doesn’t know will die. Second, the couple will receive a payment of $1 million. After much deliberation, wife Norma (Cameron Diaz, “My Sister’s Keeper”) presses it. Suddenly, the couple’s life is plunged into a hellish set of events that can only end in salvation or eternal damnation.
Kelly is a lover of science fiction, and “The Box” adequately satisfies such a love affair. NASA, Mars exploration and brain control are but a small sample of such space-age components in the film. Surprisingly, the sci-fi content itself isn’t a problem. In many films the science jargon is overwhelming and perfunctory, but in “The Box” it sets a nice tone for the movie.
There is a problem, though, with science fiction’s relevance to the primary story and central moral dilemma. More often than not, the movie focuses on random details that the audience will invariably commit to memory in the hopes that they will somehow be important later on. Nine out of 10 times, the details are never mentioned again. This is more distracting than helpful.
Without a doubt, “The Box” is absurd on almost every level. Still, it manages to produce entertainment amid the chaos. The sequence of events is haphazard at best; the scientific and religious connotations are ambiguous and often poorly defined; and the moral choices are extreme and ostentatious. But from beginning to end, “The Box” demands not only attention, but also respect. There are few movies that can keep viewers so riveted to their chairs while piling on layers and layers of confusion and mayhem. Nothing makes much sense in the film, but at least the cud, while not wholly digestible, is spoon fed in a consistent manner.
With tons of literary allusions and circular logic, “The Box” preys on qualities that made “Donnie Darko” so successful. “The Box” isn’t easy to fully appreciate after the first viewing. But consistent to Kelly’s films, after the second, or maybe even third viewing, it wouldn’t be surprising to find a new cult following with “The Box.”