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It starts out with a simple premise -- a married couple, Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) and her husband Arthur (James Marsden), receive a visit from a man with a severely burned face named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella). Despite his frightening appearance, Steward is cordial towards them, simply telling them that he has given them a box with a single button on it. He tells them that, if they push the button, they will receive $1 million in cash but a person that they don't know somewhere in the world will die. He refuses to release any more information than that about the nature of the box or his employers. He then leaves them for 24 hours to make a decision.
The film specializes in being a Mind Screw production, though it does a lot more to make sense of its mental games than most other films in the genre.
The story "Button, Button" had previously been adapted into a 1985 episode of The Twilight Zone.
This film includes examples of:
- Adaptation Expansion: From five pages of story into one hour of television into two hours of cinema.
- Aliens Are Bastards: The reason they were given the box? It's to determine whether humans are ultimately altruistic enough to be allowed to exist. They choose to investigate by putting people in a situation where, if they choose poorly, they have to kill twice. Once for the button push, and a second time to "atone" for it with spousal murder in order to save their child, something never mentioned in the original "deal". Yeah, good job testing high moral standards while being less than upstanding yourselves. If humanity does pass muster, you've got to wonder how exactly they'll be received by the public if these experiments come to light.
- Especially since the movie reveals the Aliens deliberately interfere in their lives and careers to try forcing the subjects into pressing the button.
- Black and White Morality
- Brainwashed: A disturbing number of people, causing some serious Hive Mind / Meat Puppet like action. The telltale indication is a bleeding nose after the fact.
- Crapsack World
- Fantastic Aesop: If you're offered the choice of money via murder, don't take it. You will ultimately really regret your choice, because not only will it force you to kill your spouse and die/get sent to jail, but potentially doom the human race. Of course, if you know there's no repercussions, go right ahead.
- Friends Rent Control: Several people have pointed out that if the protagonists needed money, they could simply move from their massive house to a smaller place or sell one of their cars instead of fiddling with the murder box. However, you could argue that we were meant to see them as selfish jerks.
- This was averted in The Twilight Zone adaptation of the story where the leads live in a really crappy apartment.
- Gender Flip: In both versions, one of the spouses ultimately dies from the button being pressed. The gender changes from page to screen.
- Here We Go Again: The ending.
- Humanity on Trial: Mr. Steward turns out to be an alien lifeform who has possessed a human body in order to administer a test to humanity in the form of the Box. He is looking to map an "Altruism Coefficient" by seeing how many people will choose to save others at cost to themselves. He tells a NASA scientist working with him that the test will determine whether humanity is viable or self-destructive, warning him that if they are the latter, then his employers will "facilitate your extinction."
- Inferred Holocaust: The aliens will apparently render the human race extinct, save for those chosen to be "saved", who are in the meantime used as slaves... unless our "altruism coefficient" is high enough. And guess what? It goes down every time the button gets pushed.
- Pop Star Composer: The score is by Win Butler and Regime Chassagne of Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett.
- Red Right Hand: Mr. Steward's half burned face, which despite his lack of malice, is still played straight.
- Sadistic Choice: The obvious first one is bad enough--miss out on $1 million (and it's clearly shown they're not in good shape financially) or be responsible for someone's death. But it's the later one that really qualifies: let your son spend the rest of his life deaf and blind, or shoot your wife dead where she stands and he'll be cured. The husband tries to Take a Third Option, i.e. shoot the one forcing him to make the choice, but that person explains that he would then suffer the consequences of both choices, that is to say he'll still go to prison for murder and there'll be nobody to cure his son, and then those he answers will just send somebody else to replace the dead guy]].
- And the last choice isn't even really in the husband's hands: someone else has been given the button...
- Oddly enough, that's a good thing, because it means that our "altruism coefficient" goes up by demonstrating they're both willing to sacrifice to help their son. It's possible if he hadn't shot her Mr. Steward would have had someone else killed. Probably one of the mind-controlled people.
- Schmuck Bait: The button. The original story was on that page long before the movie was conceived, so this is a no brainer.
- Sufficiently Advanced Alien
- Unfortunate Implications In all three Box choices we see, it is the wife who pushes the button, maybe represents Eve eating the apple but still comes across as women make silly, sudden decisions without thinking.