Memories are tricky things to decipher.
Sometimes we misremember things, while at other times, certain moments can be entirely misrepresented or exaggerated to hyperbolic levels. The science surrounding our memories has been around for decades, yet no one fully understands how it all works. How many times have you woken up from a dream and questioned the authenticity of the whole ordeal?
Memory is the core of Black Box, the directing debut of Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Jr. This s a story about how memories, especially false ones, can provide some truly harrowing experiences. Especially when they inhabit some deep parts of one’s subconscious that is, and maybe should be, locked away.
In an attempt to discover more about his past trauma, Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) undergoes an experimental medical treatment that sees him confronting his most agonizing fears. Specifically, The passing of his wife in an automobile accident left him clinically brain-dead.
The science-fiction elements of Black Box are dodgy and some of the explanations for how it all works will leave you scratching your head. Even still, the technology only aids the thrills that come as a result of the playfulness from the film’s scientific premise.
In a lot of ways, Black Box is a marriage between 2017’s Get Out and an episode of Black Mirror. When Lillian (Phylicia Rashād) uses the black box device on Nolan, he is transported to a very similar location to that of the “sunken place”, a fictional location popularized by Peele’s aforementioned work. The similarities can be jarring at times, but Osei-Kuffour Jr. provides enough of a difference so that it doesn’t become distracting.
Black Box shines when the thrills work in-tandem with the twisted nature of the technology. Much like the best Black Mirror episodes, the trippy, pseudo-psychedelic nature of the equipment is endlessly fascinating. Unfortunately, this is only the case for the first act and part of the third.
The scenes inside of the black box are chilling and heart-pounding in equal measures. During his search for answers, Nolan runs into a figure in his memories that is foreign to him. He hears the intense sound of joints popping and bones cracking. A body then walks up to him and nightmarishly contorts. These scenes are among the best in the whole film, alongside Nolan piecing together his past and working out his trauma.
Black Box‘s emotion comes from Ava (Amanda Christine), Nolan’s daughter, who recognizes the importance of being patient with individuals who are suffering from traumatic experiences. She is patient with her father, even going so far as to give him advice when necessary. The relationship between Ava and her father is one of the cornerstones of why this story mostly works. Seeing Black men portrayed in this light, with compassionate friends and family, is another notch in the belt for normalizing mental health for minorities. A cause that we should whole-heartedly get behind.
A lot of Black Box‘s faults come in the performances. Simply put, they range from decent like Ava and Nolan’s friend Gary (Tosin Morohunfola), to laughable, namely Doctor Lillian and Nolan himself. One scene later on in the film provided some unintentional laughs due to poor line delivery.
On a technical level, Black Box doesn’t do much with its cinematography either. No shots particularly impress and much of the lighting is standard, sometimes being over-lit. The horror scenes suffer the most from these setbacks.
The film’s final half-hour is where Black Box fully reveals itself. An unexpected twist shakes up the narrative and introduces something new to our cast of characters. This twist mostly works, but the follow-up after the initial reveal is fairly predictable. It doesn’t help that a lot of the mystique around the science is needlessly wasted on exposition. The ending is nothing special either as it just callously sets up a sequel.
Despite that, Black Box is a playful, science-fiction thriller that narrowly sticks the landing. The technology and emotional gravitas save it from being completely forgettable. As a debut, this is worth your time this Halloween season. Just don’t think too hard about how it all works.