In the beginning was the short story, and the short story was called “Button, Button,” and it was by Richard Matheson, and it appeared in Playboy in 1970. And in those days I read Playboy (for the stories and interviews, naturally), and I read the story, and it was okay. It went like this: Guy gives a couple a box with a button on it. Press the button, he says, and you will receive $50,000, and somebody you don’t know will die. After a short period of agonizing, she pushes the button. Her husband is then pushed in front of a train, and dies. The guy tells the woman she never really knew her husband. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom, rim shot, the end.
And then there came the re-incarnation of “The Twilight Zone,” the one in the ‘80s, and the producers made the story into a teleplay and changed it a little bit. She presses the button, the guy returns with the $200,000 (inflation), and says he will now pass the box on to another couple, “I can assure you it will be offered to someone whom you don’t know.” And yea, verily, Mr. Matheson was pissed, and used his WGA pen name on the script. Myself, I don’t really care which ending is used. It’s a funny trifle, a story that had “Twilight Zone” written all over it from the git-go. Move on.
In either version, this simple little story is just a parable, with different outcomes. You got your set-up, you got your moral dilemma (would I push the button?), and you got your punch line. It’s very much like a Deal With the Devil story, in that you can’t win, the Devil is always one step ahead of you. This new movie makes the fatal mistake of trying to explain it all (and ups the payoff to $1,000,000). There should be no explanation; it simply is, like most of the best “Twilight Zone” stories. If you tinker with them, they fall apart. And boy, does this one fall apart. For about the first 45 minutes they simply repeat the story, and then they go off into machinations too complex for me to explain here … and, in fact, too complex for me to understand. I had no clear idea what the hell was going on. And worse, I didn’t care.