NEW ON AMAZON PRIME! When we first meet the main character of Black Box, Nolan (Mamoudou Athie), we see a man incapable of getting through the day without the help of sticky notes throughout the house and one very helpful little daughter, Ava (Amanda Christine). Nolan has been struggling day-to-day ever since a car crash killed his wife and took away his ability to recall deep pockets of his past. So, Ava has had to assume the parental role as Nolan barely manages to accomplish even the most basic tasks, such as turning off the coffee maker.
Nolan’s dreams are not helping him cope. Filled with faceless characters, Nolan finds himself relentlessly pursued by the Backwards Man (Troy James), a twisted, bone-cracking figure. Mounting debt forces Nolan to undergo an experimental process performed by Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad). Her therapy involves Nolan strapping into a VR visor with a web of electrodes stretched over his head. With it, Nolan can navigate through his subconscious, exploring it like a library of emotions, thus helping him connect his past with the present.
If the Blumhouse name didn’t tip you off, or if you’ve seen any film dealing with memory manipulation, you can likely deduce that things will not go as planned. From Manchurian Candidate and Jacob’s Ladder to Trance and Inception, the longitudinal cinematic studies in this area have not yielded positive results.
“… Nolan finds himself relentlessly pursued by the Backwards Man, a twisted, bone-cracking figure.”
First-time director, and co-writer, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., creates an intimate setting and bathes his film in striking cinematic hues. He’s skilled at situating us into Nolan’s chaotic world and constant frustrations of adapting to his new life, the loss of his wife, and the responsibilities of raising his daughter. Osei-Kuffour Jr. wisely strays from CGI during the darker sequences (except for a remedial facial-blurring technique) and uses professional contortionist, Troy James, to carry the horror on his disjointed shoulders.
Black Box is helped tremendously by Athie as our lead amnesiac. In the opening scenes, he exudes kindness and compassion amidst his confusion. When he confesses to his friend of a frustrated, violent outburst, we believe immediately that this man is incapable of such behavior. The range Athie demonstrates throughout is commendable and is perhaps the sole reason to stay with the film.
The nightmarish scenes of his dream state are not haunting enough to elicit true fear. As the experiment begins to unravel, so does the story, with character beats that feel unearned and sudden. When the final reveal emerges, it’s not all that edifying or horrifying. Yet, it does give Athie the opportunity to exhibit considerable depth as he wrestles with his own brain for control.
Black Box is one of four new films the prodigious production company Blumhouse will release in October, called Welcome to the Blumhouse on Amazon Prime. Production-wise, it feels more on par with the company’s monthly Hulu output, Into the Dark, than it does its feature film division. Still, thanks to Athie’s delivery and Osei-Kuffour Jr.’s sure-footed style, there’s just enough in Black Box to make for a mild goosebump or two this Halloween.
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