Recently – and not knowing what to expect or what I was about to watch – I went to see The Box. It’s one of those films you’ll either love, or hate. It’s from the same director that brought us Donnie Darko, the movie that brought us the wonderful Mad World cover.
The Box starts with a simple premise. A family is presented a mysterious box with a large red button. They are given a day to decide whether to press it or not. If they do, they will receive a suitcase with one million dollars, tax free. But – and there is always a but – someone whom they do not know will be killed. If on the other hand they decline to press the button by the time the offer expires, the box will be taken away, reprogrammed and sent to someone else.
Given this choice, what would you do?
If this has peaked your interest, stop reading here and go and watch it. Otherwise, I have to warn you that the rest of the post contains spoilers.
Just like in Donnie Darko, getting your head around this film is difficult, and according to me, can only make sense if the characters in the movie don’t have free will and that everything is already pre-determined. And I don’t just mean the people who have their minds controlled, but also the supernatural beings that are doing the tests. But more on that later…
To press or not to press? That’s the question.
Just like in the last Batman film, there seems to be some game theory going on here as well. Initially, before the button was pressed, Norma (the character played by Cameron Diaz) only knew the following:
- If pressed: she’ll receive a million dollars but someone she doesn’t know will die.
- If not pressed: the box will be handed to someone else will be given the same proposal.
Under these conditions, your best option it seems is to press the button. If you don’t, chances are the box may be passed on to someone you don’t know. You then have to trust that whoever it is won’t press the button or you may end up dead.
In the film, we learn after that the button has been pressed, the box is passed on to a stranger anyway. This changes everything and so basically you are dammed if you do, and dammed if you don’t. The only way to win this game is if no one ever presses the button. Even the super computer in the film War Games came to same conclusion: The only winning move is not to play. In a way, The Box is a nice metaphor for the MAD doctrine during the Cold War.
The Corvette Scene
We later learn in the film that the family is living above their means. Yet even with this knowledge, the corvette scene at the beginning remains strange. But although the film insinuates it as an excess, it’s quite possible that Arthur never had to pay for his Corvette. It was given to him.
I remember once seeing a documentary where the astronauts from one of the Apollo missions all drove exactly the same Corvettes. It turns out that all astronauts during this age were leased Corvettes as a way of thanking them for the dangerous job they were doing. If this was one of the perks of Arthur becoming an astronaut, then it makes sense that Norma would jokingly blame it on his early midlife crisis. They wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise and is actually a symbol of a brighter future ahead. One that would soon be ripped away from them.
The Sacrifice Scene
Everything seems to be part of a large sadistic experiment by a higher power to test human altruism. We also learn that as long they continue to press the button, the human race is doomed. Yet it is when Norma pleads to have her own life taken to spare her son that she is at her most altruistic. So I can only conclude that this exactly what the higher power is not looking for as a common human quality.
It sounds strange at first, but this does make sense if this is applied to nuclear war for example. Before the MAD doctrine formed, whichever side launched the first strike always had the advantage. They would still suffer huge losses by enemy missiles that survived the first strike, but it would still be less than if the enemy initiated the attack. So it takes nerves of steel on both sides not to start a devastating nuclear holocaust. Especially when both sides don’t trust each other. So any alien race trying to make contact with humans would want to ensure themselves that they don’t ever put themselves in that position.
The United States was in the same position when the USSR had just started on their own nuclear program. At the time, some felt it was in the US’s best interest to bomb Russia back to the stone age before they were able to acquire a sizable nuclear arsenal.
So far, everything seems rather plausible. But then: Arthur shoots Norma while at the same time, another couple elsewhere presses the button. Coincidence? Again?
Does Arthurs decision to shoot Norma influence the other couple to press the button? Or is it the other way around? And if it is the higher power that is influencing their decision making, doesn’t that invalidate their own test?
Or maybe nobody at all has a say in this matter and everything is pre-determined anyway. There is just the illusion of freewill.