Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly showed off some footage of his new Twilight Zone-inspired movie The Box yesterday, and there's more to this trippy movie's cautionary tale than meets the eye, according to star Cameron Diaz. Major spoilers below.
We saw a ton of gorgeous footage, which sort of spelled out the movie's storyline: a man missing half his face comes to visit Norma (Cameron Diaz) in 1976, and offers her a million dollars. All she has to do, to earn it, is press a button on a wooden box in the next 24 hours — and someone she's never met will die. Her husband Arthur (James Marsden) is a scientist, and he's skeptical about the box, which appears to be just a plain wooden box with a glass dome and a button inside. And eventually, she winds up pressing the button, and then regrets it. Norma and Arthur track down the family of the person who died as a result of their button-pressing, and try to give them the money, to no avail. The movie is based on a short story by Richard Matheson, but Darko takes the original concept and runs with it.
More importantly, the footage we saw was like Donnie Darko, only more grown up and suburban. There was lots of trippy imagery, including people moving weirdly in unison, and the images look color-enhanced and creepy. There are some of those liquidy surreal globs that you'll recognize from Darko, and clearly Diaz and Marsden fall into a weird, scary world as a result of their decision to press the button. The film is scored by Arcade Fire.
In the press conference after the panel, Kelly told us that the movie puts Arthur and Norma through a more extreme test in the film's second and third acts, which push them to the outer limits (so to speak) of their very being. And the movie's ending is incredibly intense and emotional, as they're tested to the brink.
So who's behind this weird moral test, of pressing a deadly button for money? The biggest clues came from Diaz. (And this is a huge spoiler, so beware.) In the press conference, she talked about a higher power that's overseeing humans and trying to decide whether we deserve to go on living, as a species. But she got even more specific in the actual panel, referring to Martians who are pulling the strings. There's an existential question: "Are we alone, or is there somebody else out there pushing the button as well?" says Diaz. Also, Kelly says the movie ties in with specific events at NASA in 1976, where Arthur works.
Kelly adds that the movie is his most personal, and the film's main characters are based on his parents. He set it in the 1970s, because you couldn't have a film about "somebody you don't know" dying set today, with all the social networks and search engines. "I didn't want to write the scene where [the main characters] google arlington steward and then tweet it," says Kelly.
The film is intended to be a Hitchcockian suspense drama of the sort Kelly's parents would like, with no swearing in it whatsoever.
I'd love to do bigger films, to play with big toys like motion capture and 3D within the studio system. But this is still the most personal film I've ever made and it's within my sensibility. I'd like to make a movie that makes more than $1 million.
He added in the press conference afterwards that it's "a real relief to know that I'm making a film that's going to be on a big screen and in a lot of theaters." He was able to navigate the studio system in a way that allowed him to make exactly the movie he wanted to make.
So we were curious about the symbolism of this random button, with its power to kill and enrich — since the movie is set during the Cold War, and that's when the source material comes from, we asked Kelly if the button is sort of linked back to the fear of nuclear war. And he responded:
The button can be a symbol of many things. It's a very pronounced metaphor. What Matheson designed, with his short story, feels like it's from myth. It feels like an old myth... and that was waht was so fascinating about it for me. It's just a wooden contraption, with a glass dome and a red button on it, and it's not something fancy. It doesn't have elaborate technology. But there's something about its simplicity, that makes your head kind of explode with the possibilities of what it could mean, and I think you can draw parallels to all sorts of things, [like] the red button that our president has that will launch nuclear missiles, or pressing a button to vote for a politician or launch a bomb.
Adds Marsden: "Or end a friendship via email. Hit send." (He makes a sort of "boom" noise.) And Diaz compares it to the "easy button," which you can get at office supply stores. "How easy is it, really?" asks Diaz.
But when you come right down to it, Kelly says it's foolish to blame a piece of technology for our own violent acts — technology makes it easier to kill another person without looking him or her in the eye, unlike the more personal, visceral feeling of stabbing someone.
Additional reporting by Annalee Newitz.