Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Few Thoughts on The Box and A Christmas Carol

The Box tries hard to be very weird, and it succeeds at that. Sometimes it is gripping in its weirdness, but sometimes it’s very irksome.

It goes something like this: a creepy guy in an overcoat and homburg named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) presents Mr. and Mrs. Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) with a box that looks like something from a party game or a reality show and has a button under a protective glass bubble. Steward, his face half excavated by a burn or a lightning strike, explains the rules: push the button and they get a million dollars (that was a lot in 1976), but someone they don’t know will die.

Mr. and Mrs. Lewis have been feeling financially strapped even though they live in a big house in Richmond, Virginia, and the only setback is that Norma’s faculty-child tuition for their son at the private school where she teaches is going to be discontinued (uh, so send him to public school!?). However, they could really use the money to replace the horrid oval-pattern wallpaper in their kitchen – which seems to have some connection with the story, but I can’t tell you what it is.

Anyway, you can guess what Norma does with the button, and then people start getting nosebleeds and the story cuts back and forth to scenes at Langley, where Arthur Lewis works and everybody’s excited about the recent photographs from the Mars probe and talking about the possibility of life on other planets. Meanwhile, a motel has a pool that’s a portal to somewhere; and a library has a bunch of open-mouthed zombified “employees” walking around it – plus three watery gates to, uh, somewhere, and we start guessing that all this weirdness is about aliens.

This head-scratching ordeal is at its best when it mimics the wooden acting, slow-paced oddness, and eerie music reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Hitchcock, that make you feel like you’re watching a 1950s B-sci-fi movie or an Outer Limits episode – or a Twilight Zone episode. Turns out, it is based on a Richard Matheson short story that was made into a Twilight Zone episode – but for the most part it plays like a TV reality show situation with lethal consequences.

It’s sort of a SPOILER to say that it’s all about aliens testing humanity’s worthiness with according to something called the altruism factor. In order to be heavily enigmatic, we’re left up in the air at the end, but I think the intimation is that we are not worthy; I could have told you that. As a whole, the film doesn’t give you enough of an explanation to make this the kind of film plot you can easily tell a friend. If anybody out there can tell me how it all fits together, I’d appreciate the help. Any theories on the wallpaper?

Even though I love Charles Dickens’s novels, I’m not a big fan of A Christmas Carol. I always found the story rather silly and overly sentimental, but I’ve always preferred the book to the film adaptations, since they eschew the darker elements of the original story, particularly the scariest scene in the book – when the Ghost of Christmas Past parts his robe to reveal two emaciated, sunken-eyed children, more like beasts than humans, who represent Ignorance and Want. Dickens can be quite disturbing!

I also don’t care much for motion-capture (Beowulf was ridiculous) and I have a love-hate attitude toward Jim Carey, but I have to say I really enjoyed Walt Disney’s A Christmas Carol for the most part. The open scenes have a very real presence – achieved by sweeping shots taking you through the streets of London and by means of wonderful sound effects. Jim Carey is perfect as Scrooge – and he’s easier to tolerate when he’s a motion-captured image than he is when he’s real and unrestrained by animators.

This is a much scarier adaptation than it is a silly, sentimental one. The appearance of Marley’s ghost (Gary Oldman) is superbly gripping. And the film is dark – at times very much NOT a kid’s movie. Ignorance and Want are depicted as feral children that morph into multiple specters of gruesome depravity. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is subtly done as a shadow that merely looms and points the way to Scrooge’s grim future.

The above elements, and more, are absolutely brilliant, but the film as a whole is kept from consistent brilliance by long sequences of silly action or overloaded images that are not always convincingly done by motion-capture technology. When the film sets up its opening sequences with vivid realism, all gravity is destroyed by images such as the dance scene in which Old Fezzwig (Bob Hoskins) and his buxom lady look like paper cutouts spinning impossibly in the air.

Jim Carey, as tiresome as he can be, is one talented, schizophrenic guy, but the film lets its CGI run rampant to the detriment of a story and a classic character that have been successful without CGI for more than a hundred years.


FilmDr said...

I like your summary of The Box, but I missed the alien references. How do they enter into it? Also, I hear that you prefer The Box to Donnie Darko. Could you elaborate on that?

As for the wallpaper, that is clearly the most enigmatic mystery of all.

Hokahey said...

I thought there was a line that the lightning that struck Arlington was from a higher intelligence. I didn't get that "alternate world" interpretation you gave me on your blog. Guess I'm always thinking aliens to explain strange happenings - and I immediately associated it with the Zone episode in which the aliens use human fears to destroy Earth from within. But I like your interpretation.

As for Donnie Darko - just too confusing for me and I liked the look of The Box better - and what I describe as that 1950s sci-fi movie atmosphere.

Ed Howard said...

Pretty much agreed about The Box, as you know. I think the film deliberately left Steward's "employers" mysterious but there aren't that many options: either aliens or God, pretty much. Either way, it's a film about humanity being judged from above for its various moral failings. There's a long tradition of sci-fi aliens doing things like this, too, in stuff like The Day the Earth Stood Still, etc.

For what it's worth, I did like Donnie Darko but in some ways I prefer the outright looniness of Kelly's other two features, especially Southland Tales, which really embraced the nuttiness. In a sense, Donnie Darko is a bit too straightforward to play to Kelly's strengths.

Daniel Getahun said...

I'm absolutely convinced that aliens were the gimmick here. NASA, the laughing lifeform that tookover Steward's resurrected body, etc. An alternate world would be a much more interesting idea - I'll have to check out the Dr.'s review.

Anyway, "I think the intimation is that we are not worthy; I could have told you that."

That's a bingo! (Alright, last time I use that...)

But really, yes, you could have told us that, and it's why it would have been so much more fascinating for Kelly to explore it, and what it means for our decision-making. Speaking of which, what's with Marsden driving a late-model Corvette if they are so hard up for cash? I harbinger of the early 80's recession to come, no doubt.

Hokahey said...

Ed and Daniel - Thanks for the comments. This has been fun. I didn't even plan to write about The Box, but I'm glad I did because the discussion has increased my appreciation for aspects of the movie.

Ed - I like the judgment of humanity theme here. And I like how the Lewises accept the moral dilemma. They don't call the police and say there's someone with a box that is supposed to be lethal.

Daniel - You can say "That's a bingo" all you want! Also, I'm glad you share the feeling that aliens are behind this.