Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) are a married couple with child in the 1970s during the transmission of the Mars probe. They have a troubled life losing her job and his promotion and receive a strange gift from a man (Frank Langella), Arlington Steward, who looks like a scary shadow of death with his deformed face (soon to be revealed as from a lightning accident.). The gift is a little box with a button in it. If they press the button within 24 hours, two things will happen. First, someone they do not know will die, and two, they will receive one million dollars. So this is a movie that sets up a moral dilemma to stretch our minds about conscience, values, and human freedom.
Of course, they are pressured to push the button and their lives start to unravel because of it, until the end when THEY become the victim of another person’s choice (who does not know them) to push the button. What they don’t realize is that the second moral choice for those who push the button is this: Either suffer their child to be blind and deaf for the rest of their life, or kill their spouse. The movie ends up with a lot of weird Twilight Zone type scenarios of strange cult like behavior from people who are all in on it, and some strange connection to the Mars landing. But what looks like an occultic movie is actually naturalism and everything has a natural explanation, including Arlington Steward with the strange face and box. He’s actually inhabited by a Mars intelligence through being struck by lightning — oh, it’s all too confusing. But they make the point a couple times in the movie with a famous Isaac Asimov quote: “Any advanced technology is sufficiently indistinguishable from magic.” And they show this quote up against a picture of Jesus from the New Testament times. So the suggestion is clear: Naturalism. Religion is simply an attempt to explain technology that is sufficiently beyond our grasp (such as Mars alien life forms and their technology to control us).
Another thematic element in this complex film is Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialism. The filmmakers go out of their way to emphasize a reference to Sartre’s famous play, “No Exit” about a group of people who are in a hotel who are dead, and discover that hell is not eternal damnation by God, but rather, self deception, “bad faith” in letting others define us rather than we defining ourselves through our own choices. Sartre believed, and promoted in No Exit, that “existence precedes essence.” That is, we are not created by a God which would make essence precede existence. Rather, we first exist in a meaningless universe that we must not seek to find meaning outside ourselves. In this sense, we are “condemned to be free” that is, we are absolutely free, and without external definition by other values or choices or standards. In short, there is no God, we create ourselves through our choices. So to Sartre, if we seek our meaning (essence) outside of ourselves, we are letting others define us and therefore are exerting “bad faith.” In his scheme, we must embrace our meaninglessness and accept our own responsibility for creating ourselves, our reality. This worldview is essentially one of idolatry and self-deification clothed as an assertion of freedom and responsibility. In the movie The Box, Norma is a teacher teaching the play “No Exit” to students who quote the infamous line, “hell is other people.” This would mean that if we let others choose for us, we are placing ourselves in a hell of our own making, letting others define us, etc. The school is putting on a play of “No Exit,” and in one scene, “No Exit” is written on the windshield of a car. Another statement is made, “Unfulfilled wishes is hell.”
So in this context, when Arlington Steward in the story says to Norma, regarding whether she should press the button or not, “listen to your conscience,” it probably doesn’t mean quite the same thing as a Judeo-Christian appeal to conscience. This appeal is to listen to yourself, not others. At one peculiar moment, Arthur is absconded by the cultic members helping the Martian and is given an option to choose between three water portals (strange doorways of water created by “magical” technology). “Three paths. One is salvation. The other two, eternal damnation.” He picks number two and is brought back to his beloved wife safely. But then later, when Arthur and Norma are given another choice of letting their son be deaf and blind for the rest of his life or shooting Norma dead, Norma sacrifices herself and has Arthur shoot her to save their son. Interestingly, Arthur was shown the afterlife when he has his journey through the water portals (a symbol of baptism?), which is what gives him the courage to shoot his wife because he believes they will be together again. There is a lot of religious imagery here, but I think it is subverted by the notion of secular existential freedom. When Norma asks Arlington, “Can I be forgiven?” He responds, “There are two ways to enter the final chamber, free or not free. The choice is yours.” So, the only forgiveness is in being free, NOT in following an external code or “other’s choices.” It’s almost as if the “vision of the afterlife” is a deception (technologically created) that breeds bad choices in this life of the willingness to kill another because of deferred hope.
It turns out the whole thing is a Martian experiment at a distance through Arlington who was somehow possessed through the lightning strike. Arlington says the one factor not accounted for is “The Altruism quotient. If you humans cannot subordinate your desires to more important values, I will be compelled by my employers (Martians) to exterminate you.” Hmmm. This would be quite frankly a complete contradiction of the existentialist claim of self definition, since subordinating one’s choices to “more important values” is in fact, allowing external others to define us. So I am not sure if the filmmakers are aware of this blatant unlivable suggestion of existentialist freedom. It wouldn’t surprise me, since it is a common hypocrisy of this worldview to demand complete freedom from all moral accountability for one’s self, and then to seek to impose their own morality on others. This was embodied in Sartre’s joining the anti-nuke movement because nuclear arms were somehow “immoral” to him. So he demanded no moral standards for himself, while imposing his own moral standards on everyone else. A common behavior of those who fancy themselves gods.