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“The Box” puts the fear back into the unknown

In a time when the unknown can become known in seconds thanks to modern technology, “The Box” puts the fear back into that which is not known. 

The year is 1976. Norma and Arthur Lewis are a happily married couple. They live in the suburbs with their young son and are an average couple by all accounts. Norma [Cameron Diaz] works as a teacher at a private high school, while Arthur [James Marsden] is employed as an engineer of sorts by NASA.

Their lives are normal and undeterred by problems, until a mysterious visitor with a disfigured face [Frank Langella] appears on their doorstep one day with a life-changing offer: the box. 

Given 24 hours to make their decision, Norma and Arthur are faced with a moral dilemma: do they push the button on the box and receive a $1 million reward, knowing that doing so will result in the death of someone they do not know? As the deadline draws nearer, Norma and Arthur struggle with the decision before them, unaware that horrifying consequences have already been set in motion, regardless of their decision. They quickly become aware that the consequences of their decision are out of their control and extend well beyond their fate and fortune. 

“The Box” is based on the short story, “Button, Button,” written by Richard Matheson, an American author of short stories, novels and screenplays, primarily of the science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres. His work includes “I Am Legend” in 1954, off which three films have been based, the most recent bearing the same title as the novel and starring Will Smith. 

“Button, Button” was first published in 1970 in the June issue of “Playboy.” A television adaptation of the short story was written for the “Twilight Zone” which aired on March 7, 1986. The teleplay version of the tale differed from the original. First, the sum of money offered in the television version was $200,000, four-times the original sum of $50,000. Second, the endings differ greatly, much to the dismay of Matheson who wrote the script for the teleplay under his pseudonym Logan Swanson. In the original story, Norma receives the money in the form of insurance money collected after the death of Arthur, who dies after an incident where he is pushed onto train tracks. The “Twilight Zone” version ends with the ominous stranger returning to the Lewis family home the day after the button is pushed and takes the box back. The couple asks the stranger what will happen next, to which he replies that the box will be reprogrammed and offered to someone else with the same conditions. Before leaving, the stranger, focusing on Norma, says, “I can assure you it will be offered to someone whom you don’t know.” The feature film version of “The Box” is sure to offer a different take on the ending, adding more thrills, suspense, and action as the previous versions of the story. 

The writer and director of “The Box,” Richard Kelly [“Donnie Darko,” “Southland Tales”] recalls first reading the short story “Button, Button” when he was a child. It was a story that had a “huge impression” on him. When writing the screenplay for the film, Kelly opted to keep the setting of the film in the 1970s, despite its then-futuristic feel because, “the concept of someone you don’t know, which is inherent to the premise, doesn’t really exist anymore,” given the abundance of social networking sites and internet search engines. He knew that if he had chosen to set the story in modern times, he would have had to add a scene where Norma searches for Arlington Steward [the mysterious stranger] online, and Kelly felt as if that would take away from the unknowingness of the film. He hopes that the film, “resonates with the audience of today despite the fact that it’s set in 1976,” given that Norma and Arthur Lewis live a lifestyle they cannot really afford and experience financial strain, a trend seen today given the economic crisis. 

For Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, “The Box” was a new sort of challenge. Neither of them had read Matheson’s short story before filming began, “not out of laziness,” they explained in the interview, but because they wanted to focus on the script and how Richard Kelly had envisioned the story, not wanting to contaminate Kelly’s vision. 

For Diaz, who has primarily starred in comedies [“The Mask,” “There’s Something About Mary”] and dramas [“Any Given Sunday,” “Gangs of New York,”] she embraced the change in role. She explains that she, “love[s] the liberties that sci-fi can take.” 

Marsden, who catapulted to stardom after portraying Cyclops in the first X-Men movie, enjoys doing different sorts of movies, saying that, “creatively, as an artist, it’s nice to just change things up and do things differently.” 

“The Box” was written and directed by Richard Kelly, and stars Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, as well as Tony and Academy Award winning actor Frank Langella. It opens nationwide on Friday, Nov. 6. 

Steven Baum can be reached at sbaum@student.umass.edu

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