“I don’t know what he’s going to reprogram – it’s a piece of wood.”
Arlington Steward is curt, while maintaining a handsomely polite demeanor. He is emboldened by a professional gait. There is no stutter, no loose or informal diction. Though his appearance is marred by injury, there is a skewed kindness in his eyes. He is no more a person than a Trojan horse is. The gift Steward presents is crafted with cold perfection: a smooth, wood finished box that is studded with a bulbous red button – something you might see in a Looney Tunes cartoon with the words “Do Not Push” inscribed below the panel. It is both hollow and intrinsically constructed. Is the gift a placebo, or does it carry with it some undefined demons? Set in 1976, Richard Kelly’s “The Box” probes the psychology of its characters. He wants to crawl over the folds of their brains. And much like his debut film, “Donnie Darko”, he perforates both space and time in doing so.
The couple under Arlington Steward’s precipitous rain cloud is played by James Marsden and Cameron Diaz. Arthur is an esteemed and clerical NASA employee. He is a doting husband, relieved of any moral abscess. His wife, Norma, is a high-school teacher. Though she is compassionate and calm, her demeanor is slightly more wrinkled than her husband’s milquetoast veneer. She is wearing the scars of a very recent past. Their son, meanwhile, posits questions about Santa Claus. They are a normal, if not incurious, family. Even under extraordinary circumstances, Norma is concerned with leaving the Christmas lights on while their tree is left unattended. A fire may break out, she asserts. The problems are miniature, contained, and manufactured. And yet there’s some supernatural force quietly overseeing the proceedings. It casts no shadow. It watches in immunity.
Arthur’s workplace, the NASA research center in Langley, Virginia, is a mix of artifice and reality. The belly of the sepia toned building is filled with the guts of unwieldy, monstrous computers and poorly fitted lab coats. There’s something awry at the facility. It’s as if humanity’s greatest hopes, dreams, and aspirations are merely a petri dish in the hands of an omnipotent – potentially extraterrestrial – entity. But the employees are unaware of this potential information. Arthur works on a side project that may benefit his wife. He glows when he speaks of his progress. The room beams with him.
Richard Kelly’s defiantly atmospheric, sci-fi odyssey is not without its sweater pilling. The dense layers of mystery, so articulately spooled, become revealed in its finale, leaving too much exposition where the fog of war once lay. Still, the director’s spectral reinterpretation of Richard Matheson’s short story, “Button, Button” is so deluged in strange, inscrutable ambiance that it is one of the most uncompromising visions of science-fiction in recent film memory. The 1970s. NASA. The NSA. Primal terror. And the flint used to stoke fires of the unknown. What is space, and who are we? They are questions that I keep coming back to, all these years later, when thinking of the expansive – and yet constricting – horror in Kelly’s opus.