The Box | Sci-Fi | rated PG-13 (A,V) | starring Cameron Diaz, James Mardsen, Frank Langella | written & directed by Richard Kelly | 1:55 mins

In Langly, Virginia, 1974, a couple – school teacher Norma (Cameron Diaz) and NASA engineer Arthur (James Marsden) – are approached in their home by a mysterious stranger name Arlington Stewart (Frank Langella) who presents them with a box afixed with a button and a deal. The deal is you can push the button or not. If you do, you get one million dollars in cash and someone in the world will die. With both of their jobs up in the air and financial constraints closing in Norma and Arthur ponder the moral question as well as the bigger question: who is behind the button unit?

The Box is not, as internet nerds might claim, a rip-off of the 1986 Twilight Zone episode, but the latest in a line of adaptations of Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button” (and that wasn’t even the real Twilight Zone). The premise is one that works so well in short story form, it’s something of a miracle what writer/director Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales) has done here. The Box does justice to the original concept – the question of will or won’t they push the button spans the first 30 minutes – and then rolls to a feature length mystery about who is behind the button unit that actually manages not to deflate the simply ingenious idea at the center of the story – as is always the fear when stretching a short story into a 2 hour movie. In the hands of Kelly, Box is turned into a first rate puzzle film in the tradition of his Donnie Darko – but for my money more rewarding. It’s expansion of the story answers questions in a way that only poses more. Fleshing out the film, yet circling it back to the mystery and sense of befuddlement one might have by finishing the 30 minute Twilight Zone episode.

The world of Kelly’s Box is a rich one, full of anacronystic details to make it feel all the more real. Why is it set in Virginia? Why is it a 70s period piece? Why is it so heavy on alien and mars mission theory? Why does Cameron Diaz have a southern accent? Why does she have a disability? Why is Arlington Stewart missing half of his jaw? None of this is in the original story, but all of it adds a texture to the film, giving it it’s own identity and necessarily grounding it before it starts a steady narrative slide to the surreal and then eventually straight off the cliff into the perplexing unreal.

The maze does appear to go somewhere, where it goes may not be to the liking of most moviegoers but Kelly leaves enough unspoken and synapses unconnected to point you in a few directions and keep it turning over in your head to find an answer. Unlike other puzzler movies Box is entertaining as a moral thought-provoker and a creepy thriller instead of just resting on the stunt of bewildering the audience. An inferior film would have just annoyed us with vague answers and half-cooked ideas, but Kelly’s universe here is one that seems to be just out of the rhelm of human comprehension. One that mixes science and faith in one wonderfully bizarre concoction of pod people, water portals, nose-bleeds and eternal salvation or damnation.

Box is the cult puzzle box director’s most assured and fully realized work to date. He takes the story into classically styled full-blown science fiction before it’s all over, complete with a perfect period musical score, use of soft focus lens and the steely cold feel of a Twilight Zone episode. Kelly knows how to make something genuinely creepy, getting a lot of mileage out of the blank staring faces of strangers. And the ending is one of the gutsier I’ve seen in a major studio release (at least since The Mist). It feels horrific and unfair, creating not necessarily dread, but a feeling of being completely helpless, pulled along by a conspiracy or experiment that is bigger than anything you can imagine and any attempt to would just leave you drownding in it all. The Box is pulp science fiction at it’s finest. Bizarre, challenging, intelligent and ambitious.