Film Review – Black Box
Black Box (2020) is an ingenious sci-fi thriller that makes a lot out of a little. I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment, but to illustrate that good storytelling doesn’t need to rely on big budgets or extravagant production value. In fact, many blockbusters tend to be forgettable because they focus far too much on how they spend their money as opposed to what they’re trying to say. Here, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour makes his feature length debut as director and co-writer (with Wade Allain-Marcus and Stephen Herman), and the result is a strong examination of identity, loss and memory. If this is where Osei-Kuffour starts, I can’t wait to see where he goes next.
Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) is a photographer struggling through a personal trauma. Six months earlier, he was involved in a car accident that killed his wife and damaged his brain. As a result, he suffers from amnesia. Life for him is a constant battle to return back to normal. He has to leave notes around the house reminding him of basic chores, work is difficult because he can’t remember his photography skills, and he has to rely on his daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) and friend Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) to remind him who he was before the accident.
The stress of Nolan’s rehabilitation causes him to seek desperate measures. He meets Lilian (Phylicia Rashad) a doctor who developed an innovative new technology that uses a form of hypnosis to tap into lost memories. With few options left, Nolan chooses to undergo the procedure, and at first it does help him unlock parts of his mind. But as each appointment digs deeper into his subconscious, Nolan starts discovering troubling aspects of his past – involving violence and tragedy. And all along the way, a mysterious force follows him, an unknown creature stalking him from every corner.
It would be a safe bet to say that Osei-Kuffour draws inspiration from Christopher Nolan. The theme of memory loss draws has similarities to Memento (2000), and how technology is used to enter a person’s mind has parallels with Inception (2010). There’s also the fact that the main character’s name is “Nolan.” But Osei-Kuffour (along with the rest of the production) do an excellent job of establishing their own style. The scenes inside Nolan’s head are impressive, utilizing a combination of abstract imagery with real world environments. When Nolan unlocks a new memory, it’s like he’s back in his own shoes experiencing it again but twisted in troubling ways. Faces of other people are blurred out, telling us that his mind has not yet fully healed. There’s also the presence of the “creature,” a human-like being that crawls on all fours and twists its arms and legs in unnatural ways. The creature (credited as “The Backwards Man”) is played by Troy James, who has made a successful career as a contortionist. He definitely earns his distinction here – his performance makes for the more visually disturbing sequences.
All of this would not be as effective if it weren’t for the excellent character drama. There are intense emotional stakes involving the relationship between Nolan and Ava. Both Mamoudou Athie and the young Amanda Christine are excellent in portraying the strained father/daughter bond. Nolan knows things will never be the same after the accident but is doing what he can despite feeling less and less like himself. He looks at pictures around their home and sees a family he does not recognize. Ava shows extreme patience with her father. Even when things turn sour, she never gives up on him. Their story is the center of Black Box, and as events unfold we find our heartstrings getting pulled hoping they can salvage their connection before it’s too late.
The writing does a good job of laying out red herrings, keeping us guessing as to what will happen. At first, I thought I had a grasp of what would come, but the narrative would shift in the third act and catch me off guard. There are some nice twists and turns along the way – surprises that may appear arbitrary but operate more organically once the whole picture is revealed. A lot of the sci-fi elements don’t really hold up, but that is a minor issue. Sometimes movies get bogged down with explaining every minute detail when simply going with the flow may have been a better option. Luckily, Osei-Kuffour maintains his momentum, keeping us drawn into Nolan’s motivations rather than having to figure out what is real and what is imagined.
This is an impressive directorial debut for Osei-Kuffour. There’s a confidence in his execution – every scene has importance and every moment helps build tension. And while this may have been a smaller production, that doesn’t dissipate how well made and fascinating it is. It can stand up to any big budget counterpart, because it knows exactly what it wants to do and accomplishes it well. Sometimes a newer filmmaker will need a project or two to get their feet wet and find their voice. That doesn’t apply with Osei-Kuffour. With Black Box, he’s already off and running.