Black Box: Compelling Sci-Fi Supported by a Strong Cast (Review)
Black Box will stretch your state of disbelief, but for the viewers who like that sort of thing, it will absolutely be worth it.
I like movies that blend genres: want to make your horror movie even better? Set in space! Is your love story trite and stale? Set it against a backdrop of Caligula’s reign over the Roman Empire! Is your basketball team struggling to make the playoffs? Add a goldfish that can dunk! Sure, movies that try to combine genres can sometimes yield horrid results, but that’s a gamble I’m always willing to take because sometimes you can get some of the best cinema has to offer (Alien, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Pan’s Labyrinth come to mind). Enter Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour’s feature-length directorial debut, Black Box. It is listed as “Sci-Fi/Horror,” combining two of my favorite genres, so it immediately had my attention. While it’s pretty light on the horror end of things, the sci-fi elements work to create an engrossing narrative.
The plot focuses on Nolan (Mamoudou Athie), a single father suffering from amnesia after a horrible accident. He struggles to care for his daughter, Ava (Amanda Christine), and resorts to partaking in experimental treatment, causing him to question his identity, and confront demons from his past.
While most of the acting was quite good, there were a few awkward line-reads that made me think “Really? There weren’t any better takes than that?”. Those aside, the most memorable performances came from Mamoudou Athie as Nolan and Amanda Christine as Ava. Athie has a strong and layered outing as a man struggling to regain his identity while caring for his daughter. I don’t want to give too much away, but the role required him to cover a large spectrum of human emotion and experience. Acting opposite of Athie, the very young Amanda Christine gives a seriously impressive performance as a young girl recovering from trauma and having to grow up faster than she should; for real, she’s not just “good for a child actor,” she does a really good job!
Black Box’s craft is also (mostly) very well done. The lighting and cinematography are the film’s strongest technical aspects: there’s a great use of color pallets contrasting the warm textures of the home with the sterile whites of a hospital room. Odd camera angles highlight tense and peculiar moments, and while there were a few lens flares, they were never distracting or superfluous. Also, the film is well-lit enough so that you can still see what is happening during dark scenes (I don’t know why so many modern horror films choose to be frustratingly dark).
Black Box’s technical elements, however, are not perfect. While small, every now and then there will be a hiccup that briefly takes me out of the film. For example, in a scene where a baby is crying, they used stock crying sounds. Like, you’ve definitely heard this baby crying noise before, and I found it distracting in that scene. Black Box is also advertised as “Sci-Fi/Horror,” and as I alluded to earlier, the horror elements are minimal. I know for some folks, the lack of horror will lead to points in the movie’s favor, and to be frank, the film has a consistent and effective tonal and narrative as it is. I’m not saying it needs more horror, but perhaps the marketing team should have reconsidered how they were going to sell this one.
There’s nothing in the movie I would call “bad,” but there are things I would call “polarizing.” There’s a twist in the movie, and while I won’t give it away, it will definitely test your suspension of disbelief. It’s important to remember that Black Box is marketed as “Sci-Fi,” and while the sci-fi elements are present, they’re not always the film’s primary focus. Because it takes place in modern day and doesn’t spend much time concentrating on advanced technologies, it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a science fiction movie. So when the twist comes, if you’re not ready to go along with it, I can understand if you’d be turned off by this particular plot element. I don’t know anything about neuroscience, so I have no idea if any of the science in Black Box is valid, or just a bunch of mumbo jumbo. If you happen to be an expert in the field, I’d suggest proceeding with caution if incorrect science in movies is a pet peeve of yours.
At the end of watching a film, a question I always ask myself is “would I watch that again?” With Black Box, the answer is “yes.” While not perfect, it has an engaging plot bolstered by strong performances and compelling visuals. I found myself caring about the characters and hoping that they would have a happy ending. I don’t know if it’ll end up defining the zeitgeist, but this is an easy recommendation from me (though I’d consider it more “Sci-Fi/Thriller” than “Sci-Fi/Horror”).
Black Box and The Lie, both part of the Welcome to the Blumhouse horror anthology series, were released on Amazon Prime Video (US) on Tuesday, October 6, 2020. The following instalments, Evil Eye and Nocturne, will be released on October 13, with the remaining four movies scheduled to premiere in 2021.
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