Science fiction horror has evolved quite a bit over the years hasn’t it? What essentially started as a typical alien-versus-humans ideas with “Alien” has evolved into more modern territory including the idea of technology and its effects on our bodies and minds. As part of the 8-film Welcome to Blumhouse series being released by Amazon Studios, a new sci-fi horror called “Black Box” continues this by challenging ethical dilemmas in a mind-bending style similar to the works of Jordan Peele and Christopher Nolan. Although if fails to really rise to the level of those fine filmmakers’ works, the debut mainstream directorial effort from Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Jr., who also wrote the screenplay with story writer Stephen Herman, is a daring examination of harsh themes in an era where anything seems possible through the use of technology. While derivative, “Black Box” takes a simple idea and stretches it out to a coherent, disturbing and thought-provoking narrative that results in a fine piece of modern sci-fi horror cinema even if it feels a little confused as to what kind of movie it wants to be for its audience.
“Black Box” focuses on amnesiac Nolan Wright (Mamoudou Athie) who, after a horrific car crash that took his wife’s life, is attempting to return to some semblance of normalcy with his young daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) helping him remember his routine. Sadly, Wright is unable to understand his routine properly and fails at work where he used to be an accomplished writer. Eventually neurologist Dr. Lilian Brooks invites Wright to be the subject of an experimental procedure meant to help him reconnect with his lost memories called the Black Box. While inside his own mind, Nolan experiences strange visions including a faceless entity stalking him and memories of places and people that don’t match the life he believes he had lived. As Wright dives deeper into the hidden secrets of his subconscious he uncovers a horrible truth that causes him to question his identity and reality.
The setup for this movie is awesome taking notes from several past films and adapting ideas for its own purpose. There are shades of past Blumhouse movies like “Get Out” and “Upgrade” and Blumhouse is fully aware of the derivative nature seeing as the trailers specifically mentioned these films in the advertising. While some elements might feel repetitive, especially if you’re familiar with these other Blumhouse productions, “Black Box” owns its setup and borrowed storytelling techniques well putting us front and center in the life of a trouble man with memory loss who is desperately trying to regain what he’s lost. He wants to be a good father to his daughter, succeed at a job he previously shined at, and he just wants to remember who he is after his accident erased a lot of his long-term memory. Nolan Wright, right off the bat, is a relatable human being played quite well by the fully capable Mamoudou Athie. When Dr. Lilian Brooks comes into the mix the sci-fi starts to take shape as Nolan is forced into his own mind to take back what he lost, but he finds secrets along the way that force him to question who he was in his past life. Mixing horrifying imagery and the fear of the unknown about one’s self makes for a compelling narrative in “Black Box” and although the writing and pacing does feel a bit off I found myself completely invested in the idea and where it would lead. A strong cast and a more casual approach prevent the film from taking itself too seriously or overplaying its sci-fi hand which makes the third act revelation all the more satisfying.
Which is good because to me the twist is where this movie goes off the rails and had a lot of potential to be REALLY bad in the wrong hands. The execution however turns a ridiculous Shyamalan-esque reveal into something that feels right at home within the sci-fi concept established through the first two acts. We know right from the start that something isn’t right with Nolan and we’re not sure if it’s because he lost his memory or something else. The fact that the Black Box technology is relatively untested also covers up any inconsistencies or plot devices used to add to the drama and fear while Nolan is inside his own head specifically by burring the faces of the people in his memories thus hiding from us details that would spoil the ending by using the unknowns of the technology to the film’s advantage. The set-up earns a big twist at the end, but the switcheroo we get sadly betrays a lot of the emotional subtext the film was building up to. It takes clever writing to pull off such an out-of-left-field revelation and “Black Box” doesn’t quite have what it takes to hit the mark, but it also doesn’t phone it in either. It owns the twist and it’s not until later that you realize how well the entire movie and what we are and aren’t shown builds up to the reveal. It’s a rare case where a movie effectively sets up a twist so well that you ignore how ridiculous the twist itself actually is because the ride to the finish was so well done.
One important thing to note about “Black Box” is that hidden underneath its sci-fi aesthetic with horror flair are a series of themes and messages that, to the average viewer, might be a little too overshadowed by the story to appreciate. While other sci-fi horror films of the last decade managed to combine several elements into a cohesive story AND make you think, “Black Box” does one or the other but rarely both at the same time. The story is always good, but the personality of the film changes too often. It’s a watchable, engaging and intriguing sci-fi idea that will keep casual viewers engrossed but it’s also an insightful examination of existentialism and the dark path humanity may be heading towards as we compromise more and more for the limitless potential of technology. I would have liked to see these two elements of the film better blended together and this lack of cohesion in tone and style is quite wholly the biggest problem with “Black Box”. Sometimes it feels like it settles into a comfortable escapist narrative but other times it seems to be leaning towards a more philosophical slow-burn. This can create a confusing experience for those who appreciate both styles of film. It didn’t really destroy the movie for me though and, if anything, it demanded a rewatch because there are two different ways to watch this movie, one as escapism and one as insightful art. The fact that we have to choose which one to appreciate more does sadly water down and otherwise excellent picture.
“Black Box” has a lot to say and show and while it might find itself confused at times over whether or not it wants to open your mind or shut your brain off it still turns out to be a great viewing experience nonetheless. Fine acting, a coherent story and bold ideas all overshadow a clunky and over-the-top final act twist and an inability to balance tones. It’s easy to overlook the flaws in favor of what works so well. Some will find it derivative, some will find it brilliant, but I feel most people will see it the way I do and appreciate the fact that so much can be packaged together and not feel overblown, preachy or crowded in the process. I also love how the horror of this movie comes not only from the imagery within Nolan’s mind, but also the terror of his scenario while also acting as a warning for today’s world about the dangers of taking our obsession with technology too far. “Black Box” might leave some viewers confused, but if you go into it with an open mind I guarantee there’s something to appreciate for any viewer by the time the credits roll.