Netflix endeavored to keep me busy over the Thanksgiving holidays. A list of titles that expired on the last day of November began getting “Available until 12/1/19” notices over the final weeks of the month. There are more than a dozen that I would probably have watched or watched again given time and leisure. As it was, I came up short in both categories. Yet, and perhaps against my better judgement, I decided to watch the 2009 feature The Box while I still could.

Speaking of Netflix, I noticed that the percent-match ratings are right there at the top of my Netflix summaries. It may also be that they removed them, rethought it, and then put them back some time after I wrote about their absence. Another possibility is that they withhold their recommendations from films that you are currently watching. That would be one way to prevent user rejection of the rating system – don’t show a rating if it is too easy to determine that its wrong. Anyway, at some point in the past, they figured that I’d really like The Box. I just can no longer see just how much. In any case, I’m sure the algorithm is poorly matched to my preferences, but this will not be a case I can use to prove it.

You see, going into this movie I had read some pretty negative commentary. While the premise really intrigued me the uniformly negative reviews had always waved me off. Since this was my last chance, I decided to watch anyway, but I watched on the look-out for failure. Most likely my alert state meant that I found more problems than I otherwise would have.

Once again, I’m going to assume you know the whole plot and aren’t going to be watching the movie fresh. If I’m wrong, stop reading here.

The story was originally published in Playboy in the June, 1970 issue. In that version, called Button, Button, it is more of a variation on Victorian-era horror story The Monkey’s Paw. An impoverished couple is offered a box and a choice; they can push the button and “someone they don’t know” will die, but they will receive $50,000. After some agonizing, the wife pushes the button and is awarded $50,000 in insurance money coming to her as a result of her husband having been killed by a train. When she questions why her husband was killed, she is asked “Do you really think you knew your husband?”

In 1985, when the show Twilight Zone was rebooted, the story was adapted for the second show of the series. In this one, the monetary award was raised to $200,000 and the identity of the individual begin killed remains a mystery to the couple. However, at the end of the show, the couple asks what will happen next. The stranger who brought them the box tells them that it will be reprogrammed and given to someone else under identical terms. “I can assure you,” he tells them, “it will be offered to someone whom you don’t know.” Fin.

The 2009, feature-length version of the film starts off with a fairly-faithful, representation of the Twilight Zone version. One deviation is a nod, I suspect, to the original Playboy article by setting the story in 1976. It is tied to the Viking 1 mission and its landing on Mars. This leaves me, the viewer, looking at the oddities of a period set. Combined with my preconceived misgivings about the film, I immediately started finding fault.

The first thing that smacked me was some opening dialog from lead Cameron Diaz’ character Norma* Lewis. She is attempting to explain to her school-aged child that she is not old; she is but 35! Diaz is known for her sex-symbol movie roles she had when in her 20s (The Mask, Something About Mary). By 2009, she was definitely showing her age and then some. She was actually 37 when she performed the role and not really much older than co-star James Marsden, but she really looks it (contrast with Anne Francis at 37 in Honey West). It’s not really a fault of this film, but the line seemed to be placed there unironically on the assumption that Diaz remains the young hottie for which the studio paid in their choice of leading actress.

Other early scenes showed me Virginia license plates that looked too modern (and they were) as well as other details that I didn’t notice. (Car models that weren’t sold yet, magnetic locks in the hotel, world maps with yet-to-exists nations, undesigned aircraft, etc). Would I have noticed it if I hadn’t been set against the film from the get go? Even if I noticed, would it have mattered to me if the film were a good one? Who can say.

From the “it will be offered to someone whom you don’t know” line (plus a nod to the “do you really know your husband), the film seems to lose track of what it wants to be. We find out that the origin of the button is tied to the landing on Mars which resulted in intervention from an alien force into human affairs. But is that intervention technological or spiritual? Asimov’s quote about technology being indistinguishable from magic is used several times. So is a character’s glimpse of heaven supposed to be “magic?” Is religion indistinguishable from magic?  Can heaven and earth be combined through high tech? An allegory to Sartre’s No Exit is also set up, but the follow-through remains weak. A suggestion is made that the “reality” of the movie is, in fact, simply a purgatory wherein souls are weighed. Is that, itself, meant to be allegorical? We also have the rather gruesome imagery of a toeless Cameron Diaz and a cheekless Frank Langella. How important is that to the message?

In the end, the film wasn’t as bad as I was lead to believe in advance. It wasn’t all that good either, and I probably wouldn’t have watched it, except that the premise is really fascinating. Short-story author Richard Matheson said he got the idea from a question posed by a college professor in a class being taken by his wife. Another change from the original is that the amount of money involved grew from the original $50,000, through the eighties $200,000, into a cool million dollars. Getting $50,000 and losing one’s husband in the process is almost certainly a bad bargain. A million dollars, especially in 1976? That kind of money is truly life-altering. Also altered is the shift from immediate punishment (the money is the result of an insurance settlement) to the supernatural, super-being connection – there are truly no direct consequences, but ye shall be judged for the decision you hath made.

Posed this way, it is a truly interesting philosophical and ethical question. In the 24 hours the characters had to consider the question, something in excess of 100,000 people died. Is one more death significant in any meaningful way?

Submitted for your approval, consider this alternate question. I will allow you to save one person from imminent death for a price of $1 million. If you don’t have a million, you will be given a loan that you must pay off over your lifetime. Would you stump up the dough? Economically speaking, it is exactly the same dilemma as that posed in the film. Yet, I think many would give a different answer. It is well known in economic analysis that people have a flawed way of thinking that values that which they “own” over that which they don’t. It skews investing decisions and, one would assume, moral questions as well. We also have a hard time putting a value on human life. So much so that the amount we are willing to put up to save a life varies by orders of magnitude, depending on the situation. The variations defy logic – society pays far more to avoid death by plane crash than by automobile crash, for example.

In the end, it is by this that I feel cheated. The film really says nothing about the decision itself – about the morality. Instead, once the decision has been made** to “push the button,” we get the buzzer and the announcement that it was the wrong choice. The rest of the movie consists of the basically-good protagonists trying to avoid the consequences. A greater meaning is attached by tying those consequences to the entire human race instead of Norma and her tuition problems. What was that supposed to mean?

It occurs to me that the filmmakers may assume that everyone in the audience would have, themselves, pushed the button.

Would you? Is Norma being punished for your sins? That, my friends, isn’t a bad premise for a movie.

*I’m kind of feeling that they missed, by a generation, the naming of the main characters. Norma and Arthur, as a married couple, to me would more closely match parents of the main characters, not the main characters themselves. Of course, name popularity is regional, so would that apply to Virginia? Is my gut feeling even linked to reality? I could look up the popularity of various names at the time, but I’m too lazy. I’ll also point out that the names are taken from the Twilight Zone episode, so if one can fault the choice, the blame does not rest with this movie.

**By the wife. Always the wife. What is up with that?