Bad Movie Night — The Box/Surrogates

At some point, I’m sure it will happen. We’ll assemble one of our Bad Movie Night double features with a film that doesn’t really deserve such a condemnation. It’ll be one of those proudly lurid thrillers that are appealing in their embrace of their own raunchy ridiculousness, or maybe an action movie that laces in political satire in a deceptively clever manner. I’ll feel guilty for prejudging the film, and maybe even a little bitter about not sitting down to watch it the right way, giving it my proper attention. When we staged these sorts of nights for a devoted band of hecklers a decade ago, I’d usually already seen the material we chose due to my money-burning habit of seeing just about every major studio release in the theater. Now the selections are based on reviews, hearsay, and the aggressive awfulness of trailers.

So sometimes we alight on movies that others have enjoyed, such as the first entry on our most recent Bad Movie Night: The Box (Richard Kelly, 2009). I’m not claiming this got rave reviews when it was in theaters last fall, but it had its reasoned supporters, including my former on-air cohort in movie criticism. Still, this is Richard Kelly we’re talking about, and following Southland Tales taking a guilty-until-proven-innocent stance on his work seems reasonable. As far as I’m concerned, the verdict remains pretty damning.

The film is based on–or really begins with the basic premise from–Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button.” A woman is visited by a stranger bearing a small wooden box with a thick red plunger on the top that looks like it was salvaged from a game show equipment overstock warehouse. Played by Frank Langella, he’s got a face that’s half-blasted off, which is supposed to be creepy, but really just looks like bad Photoshop in motion. He makes a simple offer with a twenty-four hour time limit to decide: press the button and receive a million dollars, but somewhere a complete stranger will die. Conveniently, the couple mulling the bleak bargain have just run into some significant professional challenges, adding to their desire for the money and, therefore, the moral quandary.

Cameron Diaz and James Marsden play the couple with a southern accents that are broad enough to sound like they’re reading lines that were written out phonetically. It’s also set in the mid-seventies, which gives Kelly and his collaborators the opportunity to don the actors in hideous fashions that are further set off by startlingly garish wallpaper. Kelly’s also overly enamored with the nostalgic color of television sets ablaze with episodes of What’s Happening!!” and Alice. I assume he’ll recreate the entire entire ABC Friday night line-up in the extended director’s cut.

The premise is simple, so Kelly layers up the film with lots of metaphilosophical mumbo jumbo and dippy intergalactic conspiracies. There are weird gateways and spooky brainwashed legions and anguished choices that amount to little more than mounting nonsense. Turns out that two straight hours of rolling eyes can be physically exhausting.

Not so tiring that it prevented us from fulfilling the second feature requirement of a proper Bad Movie Night. For that we turned to Surrogates (Jonathan Mostow, 2009), a science fiction thriller that casts Bruce Willis as a tough, driven cop protecting a society in which most of the populace straps themselves into devices that look like converted Bowflex machines so they can send android doppelgangers out in their place, observing the world through their webcam eyes. Crime has dropped precipitously, although there’s still a robust police force in San Diego, which is useful when the first homicide in ages takes place. There’s a new ultra-powerful weapon which looks a little like ROM Spaceknight’s side arm crossed with one of Wile E. Coyote‘s magnets, and it has the ability to disable robots while also killing their distant operators. It’s part of a major insurgency against the dehumanizing effects of the surrogate culture, and Willis’s character tries to get to the bottom of it, even as he himself has grown weary, in his own grizzled way, of living in robot form.

This is all ridiculous stuff, but it could work if approached with a little conviction, an honest belief in the worthiness of the material. But then is there any actor more perpetually disinterested than Bruce Willis? He used to get tagged for being too egotistical in his work, but at this point that quality would be welcome. At least he’d be alive to something. As it is, he offers the same semi-bored expression whether staring down the bad guys or gazing at his dead son’s baseball mitt.

Surrogates is so much clatter with so little value. It’s self-congratulatory points about treasuring humanity and genuine emotional connections versus mechanical detachment should have some weight at a time when the creation of a certain social networking site is a significant enough occurrence to merit a movie all its own. But even that premise is muddled and bland, tossed out because, hey, a science fiction film is supposed to be about something. If only that crazy gun was available here in real life. Perhaps pointing at the screen and firing away could jar the filmmakers’ brains into a state of semi-coherence.

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