The meaning of the film “The Box” is unlikely to remain incomprehensible to anyone. The basic idea is that personal well-being cannot justify the death of another person, even a stranger. But with the details of the plot, everything is more complicated. Given the director’s love for surreal puzzles, they will have to work hard to solve them.
What is the movie about
At the beginning, we are broadcast the contents of a memo addressed to the deputy of the NSA (US National Security Agency). It tells about the resuscitation of a patient in the Arlington Steward burn unit. After being discharged on July 24, 1976, this man left for an unknown destination, where he designed a device and took it to private residential areas.
Next, we are shown the events that followed the incident described. On December 16, 1976, Arthur and Norma Lewis receive a package early in the morning. Their son Walter ironically: “Did Santa Claus come earlier than usual?”. Under the wrapping paper is a box with a red button covered with glass. Attached was a note announcing the arrival of Mr. Steward at 5 pm.
Norma walks her son to school. He asks how she cut the bread for sandwiches: “Squares?” Norma replies, “Of course, as always.” Walter is indignant: “Well, he said: squares are for babies!”.
Norma is a teacher. In class, she quotes the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: “Hell is others”, giving the following interpretation: “Hell is other people who see who you really are.” Norma cites as an illustration his work “Behind Closed Doors” (another title: “No Exit”), in which three strangers are forever locked in the same room and cannot get their desires from each other. A student named Charles condemns one of the characters Estelle, who married for money and killed her child. Norma answers him, saying that everything is more difficult in life, and Estelle’s act is dictated by the desire to save her family. Charles translates the topic of conversation – he asks what’s wrong with the teacher’s leg. She shows: there are no four toes on the foot. Looks like Charles is satisfied.
At a NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) conference dedicated to the study of Mars, a journalist asks how the NSA is connected with this, because her representative is present in the hall. The speaker finds it difficult to answer. Arthur, standing next to him, explains: perhaps scientists will be able to find evidence of the existence of life on the red planet – probably, it is worth thinking about safety in this regard.
Norma’s boss informs her that the discount given to her for the education of her child has been cancelled. The man is bleeding from his nose.
Arlington Steward comes to the house of the Lewis family. He looks presentable, but there is a frightening burn on his face. He explains to Norma the purpose of his package. The point is that pressing the red button on the box initiates the murder of another, unfamiliar person. In this case, the clicker receives one million dollars. Arlington leaves Norma the key to the box and a hundred dollar bill, promising to return exactly one day later, when she will discuss the proposal with her husband and make a decision. When asked about his employers, the man refuses to answer.
Arthur works at NASA on a project to fly to Mars, interrupting from time to time to prepare a surprise for Norma – a prosthesis. He tells how his wife lost her toes. When Norma was seventeen, her brother dropped a dumbbell on her leg. In the hospital, the doctor left the girl with the X-ray machine turned on and forgot about it. As a result, an amputation had to be done.
Colleagues bring the hero a letter stating that his application for admission to the astronaut corps has been rejected. On the phone, he receives an explanation: he failed the psychological test. Everyone is extremely surprised by this, because Arthur showed great promise.
Norma tells her husband about the meeting with the Arlington Steward and the destination of the package. Arthur thinks it’s all a prank. The couple go to the theater, where they watch the same play “No Exit” by Sartre, which Norma discussed with the students.
At home, Arthur disassembles the box and finds out that it is empty – there is no mechanism in it. But this does not console the spouses – they think whether to press the button. Before going to bed, Norma asks her husband to turn off the lights on the Christmas tree. He says that it’s not worth it – he likes how it burns. The wife notes that it is a fire hazard and “you can die.” Arthur replies, “Everyone will die someday.” Norma agrees. However, Arthur still turns off the garland.
At the NASA test site, one of its employees, Jeffrey Cairns, communicates with an alarmed wife – unknown people have kidnapped their daughter. The man is being followed.
The heroes are talking about the button again. They remind themselves that this is about killing people they don’t know. But Arthur thinks about it and asks his wife if she really knows anyone – for example, him. Suddenly, interrupting the conversation, Norma abruptly presses the button.
Somewhere in the city, a man kills his wife and escapes, leaving his daughter locked in the bathroom.
Arlington Steward, as promised, pays a visit to the Lewis family and gives one million dollars. He says that thanks to the decision made, someone actually died. Now the box with the button will be passed to the next “subject”. Arthur tries to return the money. To this gesture, Arlington replies that, unfortunately, the button has been pressed – the job is done.
From the conversation of the police, we learn that the man who killed his wife is Jeffrey Cairns. Neighbors characterize him as a loving husband and father.
Arthur gives his wife a prosthesis, but her fatal decision prevents her from fully experiencing joy.
The heroes go to a party dedicated to the upcoming wedding of Norma’s sister. At the table, an elderly woman looks sternly at the spouses. Guests are given the opportunity to choose the gifts intended for them. Arthur chooses first. Looking at the student of Norma Charles standing in the crowd of guests (he was present at the party as a waiter), who showed two fingers – forefinger and ring finger, the hero chooses an inconspicuous gray box. It turns out to be a blurry photograph of Arlington – without the burn on his face.
Walter stayed at home with a nanny named Dana. The girl sorts through sci-fi magazines. Her gaze falls on the title of H. Beam Piper’s short story “Idiot’s Day.” Suddenly Dana sees someone outside the window. She gets scared and asks Walter to go down to the basement with her to look at Arthur’s things. There are newspaper clippings, photographs and documents related to the project, which resulted in images from the surface of Mars. Dana and Walter look at a painting with a quote from science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
At the party, Norma dances while enjoying her husband’s gift. Arthur asks his father-in-law, who works as a police officer, to check the number of the car in which Arlington Steward left. Outside the house, we see the silhouette of a man who appears to be taking pictures with a camera.
One of the waiters notifies Norma that she is on a call. The person is bleeding from the nose. The caller is Arlington. He already knows that Arthur asked the policeman to check the number of his car. Norma says she and her husband don’t want any trouble. To this, Arlington replies that they cannot be avoided now. He advises to listen to conscience and do as it tells.
Arthur discovers that Charles, who showed him the sign when choosing a gift, is Norma’s student who humiliated her in front of the class. The teenager laughs at the man’s face. Arthur violently pushes Charles outside. He’s bleeding from his nose. After the skirmish, Charles’s eyes are confused – there is no trace of bravado.
Arthur and Norma get into a car with “No Exit” written on its frosted windshield. Already another waiter with a glassy look shows them the same sign after them.
The couple are returning home. Arthur takes Nanny Dana to the motel where she lives. The girl says in hints: “Your hands are covered in blood … Someone is pressing the buttons of hatred.” She advises not to make hasty conclusions, so as not to make problems. Dana also urges “to look into the stream of light”, which, according to her, will soon blind Arthur. After that, the girl loses consciousness. Arthur discovers the document from her and finds out that her real name is Sarah. The girl wakes up confused. She says that Arthur needs to leave – it’s dangerous to stay here, that only one person can save him – he will see him if he looks in the mirror.
Dana runs to her room. Blood flows from her nose. The inhabitants of the hotel come out of their rooms and follow the girl with their eyes. The speaker’s words are heard about the search for evidence of life on other planets, which in turn can give humanity great opportunities for development. In Dana’s room, we see a board with photographs of members of the Lewis family, sheets of text and a map.
At home, Arthur tells Norma that Walter’s nanny is not who she claims to be. The couple guess that she, like many others, works for Arlington or his mysterious superiors. Going down to the basement, Arthur looks at a photo with NASA employees. One of them is Arlington. A copy of a fragment of this picture was in the box at the party.
Arlington calls Norma and once again advises the couple “not to play detective.” The woman asks him to meet. Arlington replies that he is already looking at her at this moment. Indeed, a man is standing outside the window. Then Norma asks: “Are you still here, Mr. Steward?”. He doesn’t answer and hangs up.
An NSA employee talks to NASA employees. He demands to make a lunar lander and a hangar, confirming that they still have no choice.
Father-in-law punched Arlington’s car number at Arthur’s request. Turns out it belongs to the NSA. On the table of the policeman, Arthur notices a photograph with the murdered wife of Jeffrey Cairns. He asks for details. It turns out that the shot sounded early in the morning – some time after Norma pressed the button. The hero, with the help of the police, examines the crime scene and finds on the table a photograph of Arlington Steward, probably with his wife, still without a burn. Arthur thought back to his job title, head of public relations at NASA’s Langley base. The hero takes another photograph lying on the table – a photograph of the cover of a certain textbook on the use of human resources with a catalog number.
In the supermarket, a woman approaches Norma. She’s talking about some experiment authorized by the NSA. All subjects are under forty, they are married, each has one child. The woman gives Norma a number. On it in the public library of Richmond you can get acquainted with some materials. The woman falls unconscious, she bleeds.
Without crossing each other, Arthur and Norma go to the Richmond Library. Each of them, like zombies, is closely watched by visitors. Arthur finds The Book of Lightning by Peter Wimeister, dedicated to the nature of lightning. Inside is a newspaper clipping with an article about the Arlington incident. He was struck by lightning while celebrating the successful landing of the first Viking module on Mars. Norma, using the number given to her by a woman in a supermarket, finds a video showing the consequences of that same lightning, as well as a conference involving Arlington.
While searching for a way out, Arthur meets Arlington’s wife, who introduces herself as Clymene. The woman says the library is only for “employees” so he can’t get out. She also says that Arlington tests spouses like everyone else. Klymene leads the hero into another room. We are shown a wall in the library, which depicts the same picture as in Arthur’s basement. Klymene offers the hero to choose one of the three “exits” – some portals. According to her, only one of them leads to salvation, the others to eternal damnation. When a woman creates these portals, her nose bleeds. Looking at Clymene’s creations, Arthur says the end of Arthur C. Clarke’s quote: “…indistinguishable from magic.”
Norma meets Arlington in the library, who talks about lightning. On impact, they heat the surface to five times the temperature of the sun’s surface. After his encounter with the lightning, Arlington is in contact with those who control the lightning. He asks if Norma felt sorry the first time she met him. She replies that, thanks to her own injury and pain, she felt love from him – it seems that Arlington is surprised. He asks Norma to take his hand. Having done this, the woman loses consciousness.
Arthur shows Clymene a sign – the same one that Charles showed him at the party. She perceives this as the choice of the second portal. Arthur enters the portal and enters the light corridor, after which, along with the flow of water, he finds himself in his house next to Norma. Deciding to relieve stress after the incident, the hero looks into the closet and sees himself in the mirror.
An NSA representative is talking to a NASA representative, Arthur’s superior. The first tells the second that in fact Arlington died a few hours after the lightning strike and now he is something else.
A little later, an NSA representative talks to Arlington himself, asking why boxes with buttons were made for the experiment. He replies that people are constantly in boxes. They live and work in them, ride them. At home they watch a TV box. The body, which, in fact, is also a box, is also placed in a box after death. Arlington says that after the end of the test, he will pass the data on to his “employers”, who will decide on the future fate of people. He also says that you can pass the test simply – do not press the button. If enough people do just that, everything will end well. However, after that, new tests will follow.
People under the control of armed soldiers take turns entering the portal, which is described as similar to the one through which Arthur passed. Arlington watches this and explains to the NSA agent the meaning of a certain coefficient of altruism: if people cannot and do not want to sacrifice personal well-being for the benefit of others, they will inevitably end. If the coefficient exceeds the allowable value, Arlington’s “employers” will be forced to accelerate the extinction of mankind.
At Norma’s sister’s wedding, Arthur tries to explain to his wife what he experienced as he passed through the corridor of light. According to him, in the place where he visited, all roads end and despair is replaced by serenity.
Suddenly, Arthur becomes ill. He goes outside, where he is put into a car by Jeffrey Cairns, a NASA specialist who killed his wife. He shows Arthur a secret CIA document on the experiments conducted by Arlington – the same textbook on the use of human resources. It says about testing people with free will and that the test subjects should be treated differently than “employees”. Also there are drawings of a box with a button. Arthur reads about the side effect of controlling the Arlington on other people, causing them to bleed from their noses.
Norma and Walter are kidnapped by Arlington’s subordinates. Jeffrey tells Arthur that they’ve been taken to a motel where there’s a sort of transportation hub with a swimming pool acting as a gateway. And indeed, we see zombified people – “employees” who, under the control of Arlington and Klymene, immerse Walter into the portal pool. The hero continues to read the document. It describes an experiment that Walter has already undergone – a choice of three portals. During the dive, an analysis is made, the results of which decide the fate of the subject. Jeffrey reveals that he killed his wife because he was given a choice between her and his daughter.
Arthur and Jeffrey stop: a zombified man dressed as Santa Claus is standing on the road. Just then, a truck crashes into the car. Later, the police find only the dead Jeffrey in the car.
We see a huge hangar at the NASA base. Inside – a white glow, outside – a crowd of soldiers. Lightning strikes the hangar and Arthur is taken out. He is met by the head of the NASA base and an NSA representative. The first conveys to Arthur: everything that happens to him will have more serious consequences than he can imagine.
The couple is returned home. Arlington is waiting for them there. The man says that he admires the behavior of Arthur and Norma – they gave him hope. However, the button was still pressed. Now Walter, who is locked in the bathroom, has two channels of perception of the world turned off: sight and hearing. Parents can leave their son in this state and use the amount of money received. Another option: Arthur must kill his wife – when the soul leaves her body, and the son returns to normal. In this case, Walter will get a million dollars on the day he comes of age.
Arlington is about to leave. At this point, Norma asks if she can be forgiven. The man replies that he does not know. He quotes the words of Sartre, which can be a consolation for Norma: “There are two ways to enter the last room: free or not free.” Arthur makes the assumption that they are in purgatory and Arlington is the angel of death. However, the man does not respond to this.
The couple make sure that Arlington is not bluffing and make their choice: Arthur kills Norma. At this point, we are shown another married couple: a woman, Mrs. Wallace, also chooses to press the red button, after which Arlington comes to their house.
After a gunshot is reported at the Lewis family’s home, the police arrive. They detain Arthur, but after a while they remove the handcuffs from him. People in black clothes lead him out of the house. They put Arthur not in a police car, but in another, black car. It’s autumn weather outside, no snow. Immediately, we are shown how Arlington leaves the Wallace family house on a snowy street. The boss tells Arthur that Walter will be fine. In the window we see a boy standing with his grandfather.
To explain the ending of The Package, let’s take a quick look at the plot without focusing on the many references and metaphors for now. So, we know that NASA employee Arlington Steward died as a result of a lightning strike. This happened after the successful landing of the Viking spacecraft on Mars and receiving the first photographs from the red planet. However, after a while there was a “resurrection” of Arlington. He began to represent the interests of those who, according to him, control lightning, “employers” – obviously, we are talking about some kind of extraterrestrial intelligence. Apparently, his wife also became a representative of this mind.
“Employers” have extremely advanced technology. However, before sharing them with people, it is necessary to find out whether they are worthy – whether earthlings are able to take on such responsibility. In order to find out, the “employers” decided to conduct a series of tests, which consisted in granting individual individuals free will. The results were supposed to show whether people are willing to sacrifice personal well-being for the sake of others. If not, it makes no sense not only to share high technologies, but even to leave earthlings alive.
To conduct tests, Arlington and his wife got a lot of assistants, who were called “employees” – these are people behaving like zombies, unquestioningly obeying orders. They became the eyes and ears of Arlington and his employers. It is not known how the transformation of ordinary citizens into “employees” took place. Probably, those were those who were either immediately rated as hopeless representatives of humanity (“empty boxes”), or failed preliminary tests.
There were also other kinds of helpers. Unlike “employees”, they had free will, but, when necessary, were subjected to “external control”. At such times, these people had nosebleeds. Moreover, some consciously cooperated with the “employers”, as did the nanny Dana-Sara, and some probably did not know anything about them.
“Resurrected” Arlington developed a test program in which couples with a child were tested. They received a package containing a box with a red button. The couple had to decide whether to receive a reward by letting a stranger die. Pressing the button was a symbolic act. No special mechanism, of course, worked in this case. After all, the box was empty. However, the spouses were monitored around the clock – with the help of “employees” and ordinary people in whom “employers” could infiltrate. Even if it was not possible to track the very moment of pressing, it could be easily recognized by the changed behavior of the spouses.
Surrounding, being influenced by Arlington and “employers”, initially provoked the spouses to press the button. So, for example, Norma’s boss deprived her of a discount on her son’s education, and Arthur’s superiors refused to enroll him in the cosmonaut corps.
After the fateful choice, the people exposed to the “employers” gave the spouses hints – probably this happened when, having pressed the button and received the money, they began to show signs of pangs of conscience. So the subjects came to the place designated by Arlington. In the case of the Lewis family, it was the library. There, the couple learned a little more about the lightning incident and Arlington and passed another test. For Norma it was a question about her feelings, for Arthur it was a choice of three portals.
The meaning of the ending
Apparently, the second test of the Lewis wife was successful and was recognized by the “employers” as a hopeless couple. And, if the next test subjects, the Wallaces, would not press the button, the main characters would be left alone. But, alas, the button was pressed again and the Lewis spouses had to make a choice in the final between the murder of Norma and the disability of their son. Likewise, the main characters’ first choice instigated Geoffrey Cairns’ murder of his wife. Thus, the chain of tests and the “relay race” for the transfer of the box with the button continues, and the coefficient of altruism, which Arlington spoke of, is getting smaller.
The technologies of extraterrestrial intelligence, by the way, still cannot be called limitless. Just as the red button does not initiate the killing of a person directly, “employers” cannot deprive children of sight and hearing just like that – for this they have to send them to their world through a pool portal. Both Jefri’s daughter and Walter underwent this procedure.
However, the meaning of the ending of the film “The Package” is not only the continuation of a vicious circle. Recall that the police release Arthur, despite the murder and, it seems, hand him over to the NSA, controlled by Arlington. For what? After all, for example, “employers” did not even arrest Jeffrey Cairns – he was killed with a truck. Probably, the protagonist passed another, third test (Arlington said that the test with the package is far from the only one) in a light-filled hangar prepared by NASA on the orders of the NSA. Most likely, the result satisfied the “employers” and Arthur was accepted into the astronaut corps, which he dreamed about.
In addition, having committed the murder of his wife under the influence of the ultimatum, he fully felt responsible for the decisions made. Now he is ready to be the representative of mankind for some “official” meeting of earthlings and “employers”. This conclusion is also prompted by the episode with a crowd of people going to the second test. Apparently, for them, unlike Arthur and other NASA employees, a certain simplified testing procedure is applied using three portals. But the responsibility placed on them after passing it is probably less.
References and symbols
Let’s analyze the hidden meaning of numerous references and symbols in the film.
Events take place on Christmas Eve and Walter even ironically that the package is a gift from Santa Claus. Indeed, representatives of extraterrestrial intelligence are ready to reward humanity with new technologies and, perhaps, even a certain state of enlightenment and happiness (Arthur felt it when he passed through the corridor of light). However, people must earn this gift, just as children must earn gifts from Santa through their good behavior throughout the year.
Arlington visits the couple at 5 pm. His second visit takes place on December 17th. Perhaps this is a hint of the coming “age of majority” of mankind, after which life will no longer be the same.
Arlington speaks directly of “boxed” symbolism. This should be taken as an indication of the limitations and immaturity of people who are constantly locked up. Note that Walter at the beginning of the film alludes (probably unconsciously) to the same thing: “Squares are for babies.”
Norma quotes Jean-Paul Sartre, discusses his work No Exit with her students, and also goes with her husband to a performance based on this play. Quotes Sartre in the end and Arlington. What is the meaning here? The main thesis of Sartre, including the play “No Exit”: “Man is condemned to be free.”
This freedom is absolute, but it imposes a huge responsibility on a person. This is the paradox. Each decision made, each choice creates a person as a person, the essence of which is fully manifested only at the end of life – after death. It can be said in another way: this is a choice without a choice – a person is endowed with the right to do this or that, which forms his inevitable fate.
The director of The Parcel inclines us to a similar conclusion in his cult film Donnie Darko .