The latest film from ‘Donnie Darko’ director Richard Kelly arrives on these shores bearing the clawmarks of American critics. But don’t panic: while it’s true that the film’s sci-fi antics are far from watertight in the logic department, there’s enough eccentricity and ambition at play to charm and bemuse in equal measure. Building on the short story ‘Button, Button’ by ‘The Twilight Zone’ writer Richard Matheson, Kelly whisks us back to late 1970s Virginia. There we meet mid-ranking Nasa scientist Arthur (James Marsden) and his crippled schoolteacher wife, Norma (Cameron Diaz, below), whom Kelly recruits as two blow-dried lab rats for a deliciously overwrought interplanetary experiment. It begins when Frank Langella (missing a left cheek) knocks on their door, drops off a contraption with a red button on it and says that if they push the button, they’ll receive a million dollars – but someone they don’t know will die.
Shooting for the technology-driven guilt-racking of Michael Haneke’s ‘Hidden’ – but achieving something closer to the hysteria of the ‘Saw’ films – Kelly comes unstuck whenever he strains to say something smart. Points, too, are deducted for mistaking cynicism for satire, as in his 2006 folly, ‘Southland Tales’. Yet Kelly’s crackpot-inventor approach to filmmaking (note the second-half pile-up of nosebleeding bodysnatchers, watery gateways to Hell and sundry Arthur C Clarke quotations) has produced a provocative, Lynch-lite paranoia flick that flaunts some fascinating ideas on the destructive power of technology, the bourgeois desire for conformity and the potential horrors of parenthood. It also features a great soundtrack by Arcade Fire.