In Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.’s full-feature directorial debut, Black Box, a visionary doctor stores human’s memories, consciousness, and soul as brain waves in a device that works like an airplane’s black box. The neuro-tech experiment comes into use when a braindead patient arrives at the hospital after a fateful car accident that kills his wife and wipes his memory. In a hope of restoring his memory, the patient agrees to sign up for the experiment. Unbeknownst to everyone, what initially appears as a hopeful sci-fi drama takes a sinister turn into a Black Mirror-esque tech-horror passage.
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Mamoudou Athie (The Get Down) portrays the patient, Nolan, excellently. His portrayal of a blank-slate man is enticing; he helps making audiences question his state of being just as his character is. It’s hard to fathom just how far his memories can reach out. At times, he forgets directions; some other time, he forgets how to behave to certain people or how to help her own daughter, and, most importantly, he seems to have lost his eyes for good photography like he used to do. Problem arises when the custody of his daughter is threatened should he make another round of innocent negligence that might harm Ava (Amanda Christine), his daughter. He enlists every help that he can have and that’s where Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashid) with her experiment comes into the equation.
Black Box seems to be confident enough to tag along some other influential movies. In the promotional materials, it seems to always boast Blumhouse’ top-rated production like Get Out and Ugrade; in fact, the name-droppings seem to have hinted on how the plot syncretized the winning formula of both movies. Osei-Kuffour even blatantly borrows a visual elements from Jordan Peele’s directorial debut to deliver us to the movie’s baffling nature. Knowing the references, it’s easy to predict how things gradually falter in the story; but, as it turns out, the director still saves up creepy horror materials to distant this movie from those it’s referencing.
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The horror never manifests in a full-on nightmare; but, it keeps creeping out slowly, one step at a time, as the story progresses. The mystery leaves one breadcrumb for audiences to follow at one moment and lets the guessing game going until it finally confirms the suspicion in a predictable, but not less shocking revelation. What makes the shocking value intact is how Osei-Kuffour and co-writer Stephen Herman invest sympathetically in the characters. After all, beyond the flashy yet shaky sci-fi elements, Black Box is a character-driven parental drama; and among other things, this is the finest working elements of it.
In the end, Black Box excels when it makes us aware that the protagonist is only a shell of his old self sympathetically. In doing so, the movie spits out its references (including The Skeleton Keys reference) loudly, but still it delivers a thrilling yet melancholic horror.