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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


I love movies that are divisive. And I've been on both sides of that equation - really digging or really detesting them. What makes such films special is that they almost demand that you ponder them afterwards, which is more than you can say for the majority of stuff that comes out on a week-to-week basis. The Box (based on Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button") is destined to be divisive. It comes from writer/director Richard Kelly, a man who specializes in love-it-or-hate-it cinema, such as Donnie Darko (loved it) and Southland Tales (hated it). Kelly starts off with a basic "Twilight Zone" premise, only to spin it into a story about religion, morality, and the unrecognized interconnectedness of strangers.

Set in the 70's, the movie stars Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as Norma and Arthur Lewis. Norma is a schoolteacher, while Arthur has just been inexplicably passed over for a promotion at NASA. They are desperate for money. One winter afternoon, a facially scarred gentleman named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) knocks on their door. He presents them with a wooden box that has a conspicuous red button on the top. Steward makes a simple proposition: If they push the button, they will receive one million dollars in tax-free cash, but someone whom they don't know will also die.

The first half of The Box finds the couple debating the moral and ethical merits of pushing that button. They need the money for sure, so it's a matter of deciding whether they can live knowing they've caused an unseen death somewhere on the planet. The second half goes into much spacier territory, when Norma and Arthur start demanding that Steward give them answers about the box, only to discover that his proposition was never as straight-forward as it seemed.

I want to tread lightly here. Transmissions from Mars, a lightning strike, and portals to the afterlife come into play. How this happens I will let you discover for yourself. Suffice it to say that Kelly is interested in much more than just making a standard thriller; he's interested in taking on bigger themes, using the sci-fi genre as a pathway. The thing that so many people (myself included) loved about Donnie Darko was that it obviously said something profound, even if you couldn't quite grasp it upon initial viewing. The Box is, I think, a little easier to get the point of on the first try. For a lot of its running time, you aren't sure what is going on, but in the final five minutes, it all comes together and you're left with a parable about how one individual's ability (or failure) to act responsibly can impact other people in ways we may not be conscious of.

There's no doubt that The Box is a head-trip. Whether or not you like it may depend on how willing you are to have your head messed with. Personally, I love the approach Richard Kelly takes with his films. He assumes the audience is smart enough to keep up with his big ideas, so he jumps into them wholeheartedly. Many filmmakers, especially those working in the sci-fi genre, are content to stick to time-honored conventions and themes. Kelly, on the other hand, is genuinely fearless, choosing instead to see how far out he can go. Perhaps more than anything, that is what I responded to most about The Box - I wanted it to keep going further out, and it happily obliged.

Cameron Diaz is really good here, playing a kind of role she hasn't before. Since this is an admittedly out-there kind of story, she's not required to give a conventional performance; Norma is a low-key woman placed into an extraordinary circumstance, which she cannot begin to comprehend. Diaz effectively sells the "I'm trapped in the Twilight Zone" vibe. She has fascinating scenes with Frank Langella, who does that thing where Steward is so unfailingly polite that you just know he's not so benign underneath.

The Box is not the masterpiece that Donnie Darko was. That film had a dark, lyrical beauty that this one never quite achieves. Still, I think this is a really adventurous, provocative piece of entertainment. And I got something from it as well. If you stick with it, the finale does offer a poignant message. When a movie is as unapologetically freaky as The Box is, one of two things happens: you either sit there wondering what you've gotten yourself into, or you get so involved as to become transfixed. That's what happened with me. Many people will hate this thing, and I completely understand why. But other people will really dig it and see what a cool, philosophical mindfreak The Box really is.

( out of four)

DVD Features:

The Box comes to DVD and Blu-Ray on Feb. 23 in widescreen format. The sound and picture nicely preserve the film's moody atmosphere.

If you want a slew of bonus features, you're going to have to go Blu-Ray because, as is becoming a sad trend, the regular DVD version is sparse. The only feature here is "Richard Matheson: In His Own Words," a five-minute feature in which the author talks about the origins of his story and his inspirations in general. Matheson is very interesting, so this segment is definitely appealing; however, given all the mysteries and enigmas in The Box, a more feature-laden DVD would have been appropriate.

The Box is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.

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