Black Box is one of the first two features to be released on Amazon Prime Video under the “Welcome to the Blumhouse” banner from Amazon and Blumhouse, with the other film being The Lie. Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr. makes his feature directorial debut with Black Box. He challenges himself right out of the gate with a tricky balancing act of drama, sci-fi, and horror while the script tackles such subjects as memory loss, grief, and abuse.
We follow Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) in Black Box. He suffers from memory loss due to a car crash, which also took his wife’s life. Nolan struggles to raise his young daughter, Ava (Amanda Christine) while trying to recover his memories and move on. She helps him by challenging him with questions and writing down reminders on sticky notes.
Nolan decides to try an experimental hypnosis procedure developed by a neurologist named Lillian (Phylicia Rashad), who works in the same building as his brother Gary (Tosin Morohunfola). The project is called “Black Box” and involves Nolan wearing a helmet and sinking into a sort-of virtual reality. As he starts to see his memories, Nolan begins to question the details of them. He also wonders why everyone’s faces are blurred and why a strange, contorted man is walking around.
Osei-Kuffour’s film feels like leftovers from Christopher Nolan and Jordan Peele films scrambled together. When Nolan first uses the Black Box, there’s even a black void similar to the “Sunken Place” in Get Out (2017). Black Box is missing a layer or two or three of the complexity of works by those men, but it still comes across as intriguing despite some familiarity.
Athie is the film’s anchor. He makes Nolan sentimental and compelling as the character is constantly faced with different hurdles. The man even starts to feel regret for things his brother says he never did. Christine is adorable as his daughter, who is scared for her dad and struggles with how to react to her mother’s passing. The rest of the cast is fine, but it’s those two who are remarkable.
I want to purposely stay vague when it comes to where Black Box goes. I will say I was pleasantly surprised by the ideas it comes up with regarding consciousness. The blurred faces and contorted man, with his terrifying bone-cracking, serve a story purpose outside of just being creepy as hell. Everything in the Black Box experiment scenes offer mysterious nuggets that have payoffs.
Black Box is a confident and polished debut, but it isn’t without some issues. As mentioned, some of the elements in the story are overly familiar. The brother character, Gary, also only has one note the entire film. Some of the film’s settings are also overlit and have a flat TV drama look. The final scene is a big stretch of believability as well.
Hopefully, the other “Welcome to the Blumhouse” projects can be as strong as Black Box, if not stronger. It is certainly the better of the two films released so far. Producer Jason Blum continues to help new filmmakers grow, with Osei-Kuffour being the latest example. I look forward to where this new talent goes next, though I hope his voice is a little more original and less Nolan and Peele-esque next time.
My Grade: 7.2/10 (letter grade equivalent: B)