Black Box (2020) Review!!

Synopsis – After losing his wife and his memory in a car accident, a single father undergoes an agonizing experimental treatment that causes him to question who he really is.

My Take – Keeping up with their original announcement, Amazon yesterday promptly released two Blumhouse produced films under their new venture, Welcome to Blumhouse, which would include a series of eight horrors and thrillers helmed by a variety of emerging directors and released on Amazon Prime Video in October 2020, just in time for Halloween.

While the first release, director Veena Sud‘s long delayed, The Lie, failed to work as a horror or a domestic thriller, the second feature which marks the directing debut of Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., at least starts out with its feet in the genre, a Black Mirror-like speculative sci-fi endeavor. However it never stops feeling derivative.

Don’t get me wrong, the film is satisfyingly entertaining, and even finds time to introduce a genuinely creepy and unsettling monster, but it also treads on a well-worn ground. With most of the focus on drama, the horror is very subtle, with certain elements even bearing a surprising resemblance to previously seen ventures, like Blumhouse’s own 2017 film, Get Out.

The biggest issue I had with the film, though, was that the central premise simply didn’t feel like enough to sustain the runtime. By the mid-point the inevitable twist had become so glaringly obvious that the remainder of the film was spent waiting for my predictions to be proven true, and they were.

Yet, like I said, it is enjoyable enough but at the same time a little disappointing too as the limited budget and small scale of the story keeps the film from fully exploring the implications of its wilder premises. But within its modest auspices, it’s an effective sci-fi indie exercise that’ll hopefully serve as a launching pad for director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.

The story follows Nolan (Mamoudou Athie), a photographer, who in an accident six months ago, lost his wife Rachel, and a huge chunk of his memory. Though he was announced brain dead at the hospital, he inexplicably recovered, with the experience leaving him with holes in his memory that has made the life of his elementary school-age daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) much harder than it should be. Who despite her young age has taken up the responsibility to jog her father’s memory, by leaving Post-it notes all over the place to keep him abreast of routines, and talking him out of behaviors that he never had in the first place.

Feeling thwarted by the immense pressure he is putting on his young child, and the lack of any real progress in his recovery, Nolan finally gives in to his doctor pal Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) and his advice to agree to seek the help Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad), a neuropsychiatrist whose experimental memory-retrieval program has had some great results. However, unknown to Nolan, her program ends up bringing back much more than just his memory.

The story tackles some pretty heavy subject matter when it comes to mental health, memory loss, and dealing with the loss of family members on several different fronts. As Nolan enters hypnosis and memories are planted into his head, you cannot help but be taken back to the Sunken Place sequence from the ‘Get Out‘. And similarly also builds a symbolic narrative that portrays the effect of too much information into our heads.

The film draws upon the fact that how our memories and experiences shape our thoughts and ideologies. Nolan then comes across several visuals with blurred faces, unrecognizable locations, and unreal phenomena. While many of these memories may not be as they happened, it makes us think about his sub-conscious that has formed these images but have a deeper meaning.

Though it is not an overtly scary film although some of the ideas presented in the story could be considered scary if they ever became a reality. Like the nightmarish visions of people without faces, and others who spider-walk. Those are creepy, but really you just want Nolan to recover, as this is a recovery story before it is a horror film, and be able to live a full life with his daughter who blames herself and he has to explain he’s not her responsibility.

While the film has a strong first act, but once it arrives at the now requisite plot twist about half way into its runtime, things start to feel overly familiar. Maybe it is the fact that the idea behind the twist is a concept that has been explored several times before. After that, it comes at a point that the film becomes less concerned with unraveling any remaining mysteries, and more concerned with arriving at its unremarkable finale.

The film has a lot on its mind, granted, but that doesn’t mean it always knows how best to articulate those ideas. Without the scares and the carefully cultivated tension of the early going, something is lost, and the film doesn’t quite hold together until the end, even though it never totally lost my interest, as I remained curious about what might happen all the way through.

Performance wise, Mamoudou Athie, who is mainly known for his television appearances in Sorry For Your Loss and Underwater, impresses as the under-confident and self-conscious Nolan. Personally, I really enjoyed his performance in this film especially since he has to take on multiple layers within his character. Phylicia Rashad complements him well as the self-assertive doctor who clearly has her own motives.

However, it is young actress Amanda Christine who dominates every scene she is present in. In supporting roles, Donald Watkins, Tosin Morohunfola, Charmaine Bingwa and Nyah Marie are also good. On the whole, ‘Black Box’ is an enjoyable indie sci-fi thriller filled with remnants of similarly themed better works.

Directed – Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour

Starring – Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine

Rated – NR

Run Time – 100 minutes

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