In which I finally watch a DVD I’ve owned for years, long after doing so could have any meaning.
Why’d I Buy It?
In April 2011 I decided to read a bunch of science fiction, so I researched up a reading list, and one item that kept getting mentioned as an all-time CLASSIC was the Richard Matheson short story “Button, Button.” I also read there was an interesting movie version called The Box. So I ordered both from the Amazons. I would study the classics!
Why’d I Never Watch It?
I read the book version right away. The premise is famous; you might know it. A stranger gives a box to a couple. Inside the box is a button. “Press it and two things will happen. One, someone you don’t know, somewhere in the world, will die. Two, you will receive a million dollars.” If you love short stories, and characters, and good writing, go ahead and skip this, because the writer didn’t bother with any of that. It is a “classic” only in the sense that for the next 100 years, people who are bad at thinking will say “it makes you think.” SHORT STORY VERSION SPOILER ALERT, here’s how it ends, which I did not know: the wife presses the button and her husband gets hit by a train. She complains to the stranger, “You said it would be someone I didn’t know!” And the stranger replies ludicrously, “Does anyone really know anyone else?” The DVD screening was immediately canceled.
Now, thanks to Theresa’s attempt to remake The Neverending Story into a movie I’d actually like, I know what I’ve been missing.
Really the main question is not “Would YOU press the button?” It is “How did someone take six pages of plotless ‘story’ with the thinnest scarecrows ever devised for characters, and end up with 1 hour, 55 minutes of movie?” Here is how: You make up all kinds of crazy and hope it works. Let’s examine that.
The movie is set in 1976. It is also set in Virginia, so our main characters Cameron Diaz and her husband Arthur (James Marsden) have accents and wear polyester and their stove is yellow. They have a kid (age 12-ish) named Walter. The first scene is Cameron finding a box on the front steps, in which is the button. Wasting no time! They set it aside and go to work. (Wasting some time.)
For Cameron, work means the private high school where she is teaching Sartre’s existentialist play No Exit (“Hell is other people seeing you as you truly are” is the first of several Sartre-y quotes this movie is going to throw at you, and you will LOVE that as long as your goal is to learn nothing about Sartre).
After the Foot Incident, Cameron gets called to the principle’s office. He tells her he’s canceling the employee discount, so she won’t be able to afford Walter’s tuition. While delivering the bad news, he gets a spontaneous nosebleed. Weird, but I used to get those, so not TOO weird.
Demoralized, she goes home and finds the stranger who sent the box. His name is Arlington Steward. He gives her the whole kill person / win money spiel, and says she can discuss it with no one except her husband. No cops! Strict rule!
Meanwhile, Arthur is at work at NASA. He is a rocket scientist who worked on the Viking Landers (aha, that’s why we’re in 1976). Unbeknownst to Cameron, he is using NASA resources to design plastic toes for her. All his coworkers are like, That’s so thoughtful. Then he gets a letter saying he has been denied admission to the astronaut training program. Everyone is like, That makes no sense, you’re perfect. No one gets a nosebleed but even so we ask ourselves: Have shenanigans transpired?
So. Career disappointments all around. We were counting on that money. Now a million dollars seems useful, etc., etc. They discuss the button, then leave Walter with Dana the Babysitter and attend a community-theater production of No Exit. They go home. We’re 26 minutes in and 9 minutes of stuff has happened. Plus things like Arthur saying let’s leave the Christmas lights on while we sleep and Cameron saying it’s a fire hazard. How to turn 6 pages into 115 minutes: Solved!
Movie does spend a minute wisely to ditch the “How well do we know anyone” angle. Arthur asks directly, “Do you even really know me?” and she rolls her eyes. “Better than you know yourself.” Richard Matheson, short story author, you sit and think about that for a minute. Anyway, enough talk: Cameron Diaz presses the button. We cut to a police dispatcher who is getting a call about gunshots.
Then we cut back to their house. Mr. Steward shows up, gives them the suitcase o’ cash, and says now he’ll bring the button to someone else:
Panicking, Arthur takes down his license plate as he drives off. Then they again ditch Walter with Babysitter Dana and attend a wedding rehearsal dinner.
It gets even better when we cut to Walter and Dana at home. Dana sees a man in the yard. She cleverly doesn’t let on to Walter, and says basically, “Show me the basement.” Where I guess they can hide. But dad’s Viking Lander news clips are down there (Viking’s mission, in real life, semi-relevantly, was to find microbial life on Mars) and Walter starts reciting a lot of technical stuff about the mission — transmission rates, bit scan methods — and Dana seems very interested in these details. She seems to have forgotten about the guy lurking outside. It is eerie. The movie is very good right now.
Meanwhile, back at the party, Arthur asks a cop relative for a favor – trace Steward’s plate. One minute later, a man with a nosebleed tells Cameron she has a call. It is Steward. He says “I told you not to go to the police.” She says she doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, and he says, “Then you shouldn’t have pressed the button” (good comeback). Then she says “What are we supposed to do now?” and he says, “Listen to your conscience. Do what it tells you.” Okay, that is not helpful. But it does seem like maybe Steward is curious what her conscience will say? Still, not a help. OHHHHH SHIT MAYBE THERE’S NO EXIT.
While she’s on the phone, someone tells Arthur that the weirdo waiter who made the peace sign is also the guy who pestered Cameron about her foot in class. So Arthur grabs the waiter. The waiter keeps giggling, and Arthur keeps saying “Is that funny to you?” Suddenly the waiter breaks down and says, “No… it’s tragic.” He looks suddenly lost, like he has no idea where he is, and he gets a nosebleed. Confused, Arthur walks away.
He has sorta ruined the party by roughing up a 16-year-old waiter, so he and Cameron get their car from the valet, and when it arrives “NO EXIT” is written in the fog on the windshield and the valet throws them ANOTHER creepy peace symbol. Then we cut from peace symbol to their home, where Dana and Walter are sleeping in front of the TV:
Arthur drives Dana home. She says she is living in a motel. And also some other stuff: “You have blood on your hands” and “Is someone pushing your buttons?” and “Look in the light.” She asks him “What do you plan to do next?” CLEARLY she is channeling an alien intelligence, and then suddenly she gets a nosebleed and dies. So Arthur finishes driving to the motel (like a rational person) and when he gets there he fishes out her ID (standard procedure in event of babysitter death) and it says her name is Sarah. Not Dana.
Suddenly she comes back to life. “You have to get out of here! It’s not safe for you here!” She is urgent and seems to be herself again. “There’s only one person who can save you now! Look in a mirror!” Then she flees into the motel… so he drives off.
The next day, cop relative (everyone in movies knows a cop who will run a plate) reveals Steward is driving an NSA car. Huh. ALSO, Arthur notices crime-scene photos on the cop’s desk, so he asks when the victim died. Naturally it was the minute Cameron pressed the button.
MEANWHILE, Cameron is in a grocery store. A lady bursts in, rushes to her, and says: “The NSA is letting him do it. Test subjects are all under 40, happily married, with one child.” She hands over a piece of paper, gets a nosebleed, collapses. The paper has library call numbers.
Cut to the house where the lady died. Arthur has convinced the cop to take him there. Sure! The murder victim was the wife of one of his coworkers, Carnes.
So now Cameron and Arthur both have call numbers. They both end up in the library, but different sections. She’s in Filmstrips Basement and he’s in Unpopular Tomes. Cameron’s film shows Steward when he worked at NASA, before his face was damaged. Arthur’s book is about lightning, and after he finds it, he is pursued by a crowd of alien-channeling people. It is a quiet, low-speed library chase. NO RUNNING. SHHHH. He asks a librarian for an exit – SARTRE ALERT — but she’s one of them. Oh no, Arthur!
Librarian says, “He’s testing you. He’s testing all of us. Please, follow me.” Then she leads him to a room and says, “There are 3 gateways. Be careful which you choose, for there is only one path to salvation.” If he picks the wrong gate, he faces eternal damnation. Shouldn’t he be meeting up with Cameron so they can combine their clues and stop the button from being pressed? Let me tell you right now that never happens. The call numbers have led to nothing that ever gets used. What is this movie even about.
Cameron is doing better than Arthur. She runs into Steward. He explains he was hit by lightning, and now works for the beings who control the lightning. He asks “What did you first feel when you saw me? Pity?” And she says “Love.” She thought of all the pain she’s suffered because of her foot and how much worse if it was her FACE. = Love. Surprised, he touches her, and she passes out.
MEANWHILE, Arthur steps into Gate 2. A tunnel of white light ensues. It’s exactly like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey if Stanley Kubrick made that on a PowerBook 500 in 30 minutes at a Starbucks. Arthur and Cameron wake up at home in a big splash of water. It’s a baptism, if a baptism makes no sense, and then there is a mopping scene. Arthur says “I need a drink” and when he gets a glass, he glimpses himself in a mirror. We remember Dana/Sarah’s parting advice, and are slammed by a forceful realization: it still makes no sense.
MEANWHILE #2, Arthur’s boss is talking to an NSA guy. The NSA guy says Hey you had an employee named Steward, and in the first minute of the transmission from Mars, he was struck by lightning and killed. But full disclosure [looks around nervously] in the morgue he came back from the dead and had all kinds of nutty abilities and built a button and now we’re keeping him secret.
The NSA guy then goes to Steward and asks him what’s his plan? Steward says the tests will end when people stop pressing the button. There’s a speech about how humans must learn to sacrifice for the greater good. No one bothers to ask, “Hey, Steward, wouldn’t your test of sacrifice and conscience be just as valid if you didn’t actually kill a person every time the button is pressed?” OOPS THERE GOES THE MOVIE. Then Dana/Sarah and a lot of other people are being walked slowly by armed guards toward a white light in a NASA hangar. Why armed? Did they all press the button and this is punishment? Or they didn’t press it, and this is a reward? Did they even GET the button?
Anyway now Cameron and Arthur are at a wedding. Arthur gets kidnapped at gunpoint by Carnes (remember Carnes?). Then Walter and Cameron get kidnapped by alien-channeling and/or NSA goons.
Carnes is a trove of info as he drives Arthur away from the wedding. He has stolen instruction manuals that Steward hands out to the people he controls telepathically? It is rapidly making no sense. It seems it didn’t matter which gateway Arthur chose—he just needed to choose one so they could do a chemical analysis of him? Carnes says they took your kid, but I know where. This is weird because goons only seized Walter AFTER Carnes kidnapped Arthur? Carnes admits he killed his wife, but only to save his daughter. He says the entity that occupies Steward is not invincible. Arthur says, “So we can kill him!” Great.
A truck hits their car. Carnes is killed but Arthur crawls out of the white light at NASA? NASA puts him in a limo and drives him home, along with Cameron. How’d she get there? Don’t worry about it, I guess. Steward is in their kitchen. Things are really falling apart.
Steward says “You gave me hope… but [still] you pressed the button.” So here’s the NEW deal: Walter is now blind and deaf, and the parents can either 1) Keep the million dollars, but Walter stays that way; or 2) Arthur can shoot Cameron, Walter will be healed, and then on his 18th birthday Walter will get the million (plus interest!).
Cameron says, “Can I be forgiven?” Steward says he doesn’t know, and quotes Sartre (ugh) – you can die free or die not free, basically. Arthur interrupts to babble about the CGI white light tunnel: “You gave me a glimpse of the afterlife, didn’t you? Because this is Purgatory! And you’re here to shut it down!” Steward smiles cryptically, so they decide that means they have nailed it. Steward says only, “Your son is locked in the upstairs bathroom.” That is about as noncommittal as it gets.
The existentialist and the rocket scientist run upstairs and can’t figure out how to break down the door, and can’t figure out that deaf Walter can’t hear them pounding on the invincible door. This double-fail segues to an intense scene that absolutely does not work where Cameron realizes she HAS to get shot and Arthur accepts that he HAS to shoot her. It takes 90 seconds.
During the turmoil, we cut to some other couple staring at the button on their kitchen table. The wife smacks the button, and so –BANG! — Arthur shoots Cameron dead. It’s Arthur in the living room with the revolver.
Cops arrest him. Arthur’s boss says Walter will be looked after (by NSA goons). We end on Steward standing in the CGI-augmented exhaust of his black car, which swirls up around him like infernal smoke.
So much happens. We have a foot, we have unpersuasive Southern accents, we have a huge paranoid conspiracy where Martians take over the NSA, we have a Cliff Notes-level engagement with theology/philosophy. Why wouldn’t the rocket scientist figure out some way to shoot Cameron Diaz that would not get him arrested for murder? This thing had great tension going for a while, and then it got so baggy. Or to use a juggling metaphor, this movie was like a daring artiste who keeps adding more balls to his juggling act — and bowling pins, and knives, and torches, and chainsaws – till he’s got 100 things in the air and the crowd keeps going “woahhh!” – and then he just shoots his wife.
Frank Langella is great at cryptic, and I respect the overall ambition. Incidentally, it was written & directed by the same guy who did the ambitious Donnie Darko (DVD #196). I didn’t realize that till the end credits. And the music, which was often good but occasionally intrusive, was done by half of Arcade Fire. I did not realize that either. Neat! But there’s also a CGI afterlife, and some pretty big plot chainsaws hit the ground.
Gavel bang! Rank it!
Sigh. This DVD moves from the Unwatched list to the Ranked list to take spot #247. That’s below the unsurprising time-travel-and-explosions mystery Source Code and above Hayden Christensen’s finest work, Shattered Glass. I give it Four plastic toes that I made myself and one firm rejection letter from the astronaut program.