For its first hour, the new sci-fi horror flick Black Box appears to have collaged its story together using the plotlines of other, better films. A Black man is hypnotized and sucked into his own subconscious by an older lady, à la Get Out; when he isn’t being hypnotized, he’s struggling to piece together what happened on the night of his wife’s death. To function in his amnesiac state, he must follow instructive notes reminding him how to behave, just like in Memento. Yet, just when it seems director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.’s debut feature will never leave the land of prestige-thriller imitation, it shifts. Soon Black Box is a bonkers, delightfully campy Friday-night-popcorn-on-the-couch affair. It’s a mess, but in a way that resembles a lost episode of Black Mirror, one full of heavy-handed technophobia and big twists.
Black Box opens with handsome, skittish widower Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) dealing with memory loss six months after a car crash kills his wife and leaves him with a severe brain injury. A former photographer, his work has suffered after the accident, and bills pile up in his spacious home. His adorable daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) tries to keep the household running, holding out hope that her dad will return to normal and ignoring his bouts of rage. She’s frustrated by the way his personality has changed after the crash—he smokes cigarettes, even though he never did before, and the formerly gentle artist is now prone to punching walls. After his forgetfulness gets him in trouble with Ava’s school, Nolan decides to undergo an experimental neurological treatment with a device known as the “Black Box” in order to recover his memories. The treatment, which uses hypnosis to delve into the subconscious, reveals surprises lurking in the deepest recesses of his mind. Sinister! Then, we learn, his suspiciously eager doctor, played by Phylicia Rashad, has a big secret of her own. Extra-sinister!
There’s a stilted, formulaic quality to the film’s first half. The movie opens with a fake-out dream sequence, for starters. In a scene that feels shoehorned in for exposition, and to attempt to give the dead-wife character a whiff of personality, Nolan meets with his former boss, who goes on a dreamy tangent about what a wonderful features writer his wife had been. It’s a terribly awkward moment that doesn’t resemble how two close colleagues would speak with one another after a major tragedy at all. And although the actress who plays her is lovely, Ava suffers from Overly Responsible Fictional Child Syndrome, bossing her father around with an irksome precocity that appears frequently in movies and never in real life. Also, when Nolan begins his treatment, some of the details about his journey into the “Black Box” are straight-up silly. Rashad’s Dr. Lilian Brooks literally types the word “hypnosis” to start hypnotizing him, for instance; she also has him travel through his memories using an analog wristwatch for no apparent reason.
Athie and Rashad both deliver committed performances of the pulpy material, almost good enough to excuse the movie’s silly-looking special effects and patchy writing. Early on, Black Box suffers from showing its “monster” too frequently and not making it horrifying at all. A creepy faceless being in a suit skulks around the edges of Nolan’s subconscious; if he hangs around in a memory long enough, the being crawls into the frame and then tries to choke him. The being makes a sickening bone-crunching sound as it crawls, which is appropriately creepy, but it also moves at such a slow pace that one wonders why Nolan’s dream-self doesn’t just slip on some headphones and walk in the other direction. At one point, he finally does simply kick it out of the way, an inadvertently comic moment.