Sci-fi Horror Black Box (2020) Wades into Familiar Yet Enjoyable Territory
Updated: Feb 6, 2022
Title: Black Box
First Wide Release: October 6, 2020 (Digital/Streaming Platforms)
Director: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour
Writer: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Stephen Herman,
Runtime: 100 Minutes
Starring: Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine
Where to Watch: Free with a Subscription to Amazon Prime
Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) is struggling with amnesia after surviving a near-fatal car crash that took his wife’s life. His young daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) runs the house and does her best to help him re-build his memory before the accident. Feeling frustrated after lashing out too hard one night, Nolan decides to seek out medical advice from Lillian (Phylicia Rashad), a renowned neurosurgeon whose research may lead to healing Nolan. Unfortunately, the treatment is unorthodox and traumatic as each time Nolan uses the experimental ‘Black Box’ procedure he is plagued by bizarre visions that terrorize him. With his first feature film, director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour crafts a tense and emotional journey into the horrors of identity and grief.
A compelling work of sci-fi horror, Black Box uses its fun setup to explore how grief can change people.
Black Box views like a slightly longer episode of Black Mirror and honestly that is a compliment! While I believe that Black Box would benefit from marinating in its more horror-oriented scenes, especially if we spent more time within the universe of the ‘Black Box’ invention, it still packs a punch. The unraveling process of the story comes naturally, and clever foreshadowing makes the final act more gratifying. As a person with a [decent] background in neuroscience, I am always excited to see concepts, like the one behind Black Box tackles, in horror. What I ask is that real concepts are correctly cited! A neuroscientist of Lillian’s accolades would not call face-blindness ‘prognopragnosia.' It’s prosopagnosia. I’m sure it is an honest mistake, hopefully, it does not happen again should the film see a sequel.
The cast of Black Box delivers fantastic performances. Athie’s performance is truly exceptional due to his meaty role. He gives an assured and nuanced delivery of a complex character. Both sympathetic and at times antagonistic, Nolan’s character arc is a whirlwind to experience and Athie deserves credit for pulling it off so well. Christine, Rashad, and Charmaine Bingwa also anchor the film by doing the emotional heavy lifting of personifying the trauma of loss that is central to the film’s themes. It was crushing watching Christine portray an elementary schoolkid cooking her father breakfast and helping him prepare for an interview to get his job back all the while wondering why she didn’t feel his love anymore. I’m not afraid to say I teared up during most of her scenes!
Well shot and produced, Black Box showcases artistic and technical competence without taking many risks. The shots of the outer world are pretty bland but the team behind Black Box conjures up some really interesting imagery within the universe of the ‘Black Box.’ The dreamscapes provide alluring imaginative and frightening sequences. Another positive of Black Box is its jarring score. The short, stabbing violin jabs create this velocity that constantly propels the film forward.
The portrayal of technology is commendable. It looks futuristic without crossing into unrealistic territory. I am not a huge fan of the blurry face imagery in the ‘Black Box’ sequences. It feels overdone and looks cheap. While it is a major plot point, it doesn’t detract too much from the film. I wish that the team had gone in a different direction here.
It doesn’t dive as deep as the potential of its premise suggests but Black Box satisfies with sharp execution. Osei-Kuffour helms the feature by escalating the intensity and scope of the mystery of the world he builds. The final act meanders a bit but still lands on its feet. I really appreciate the tonal choices of Osei-Kuffour, particularly in grounding the film in a more reflective and emotional state of terror. The decision to focus on the ethical considerations of the study really makes us care more for the characters without slipping into melodrama. I do wish that Nolan’s character was fleshed out a bit more. Given the circumstances it's understandable. I just think that more could have come from extra time spent in the ‘Black Box’ itself.
Memory and trauma go hand in hand, Black Box explains how they interact. Memory is a fragile and malleable process. Trauma can rewire the brain in ways that are still beyond our understanding. I appreciate that the message of Black Box is that trauma can shape you, but it doesn’t change you. Your reaction to the trauma and how you move forward is what changes you. This is highlighted by the various traumatic events in the film, namely, the car crash and the abuse. Ethics also plays a large role in Black Box. How far can medical professionals go before exposing someone to something dangerous or unstable? Is it right to coax someone into such kind of treatment after experiencing trauma?
Black Box isn’t the scariest film out there, but it is certainly a heartfelt and hopeful piece of sci-fi horror that hits all the marks it aims to hit. While the story provides for some interesting thoughts to chew on, Black Box’s success lies on the shoulders of its incredibly talented cast and its tight direction. Horror is always better when you have someone to root for and Athie’s Nolan is the type of person we should all aspire to be like. I recommend Black Box to anyone who enjoys Black Mirror-esque horror or sci-fi horror in general.
Overall Score? 7.5/10