Amazon and Blumhouse launch their new movie partnership with The Lie and this – an overlong Black Mirror episode by a (slightly) different name. Black Box takes one interesting sci-fi horror idea and runs it around and around for almost two hours – too daft to be taken seriously and too serious to be properly daft, it’s a patchy slice of genre storytelling that only twists in some of the right places.
Mamoudou Athie (Underwater, next year’s Jurassic World: Dominion) is Nolan, a guy who wakes up from the car accident that killed his wife with no memory of what happened, who he is, or how to take care of his young daughter. Selected for an experimental psychological treatment, Nolan meets Dr Books (Phylicia Rashad, Clair Huxtable from The Cosby Show) who introduces him to the idea of VR hypnosis memory scanning. Riffing on the idea that the human brain stores a backup file of important memories during a near-death experience (just like a black box recorder on a plane), Dr Brooks asks Nolan to strap on a VR headset and tap into his digital subconscious – navigating a matrix of his forgotten past to help him unlock his amnesia in the present.
The science makes no sense whatsoever, but luckily you don’t have to try and follow it for too long. First-time director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr soon swaps cerebral sci-fi for cheaper thrills as Nolan gets jolted by fuzzy-faced phantoms and boneless mind monsters the deeper he digs into his own head.
As Nolan’s friends start to gaslight him into thinking he’s more innocent than he thinks (“You punch one wall and all of a sudden you’re Bobby Brown?!”) and as Dr Brooks starts pushing him further than he wants to go (at one point circling the word “brain dead” on his medical chart…), the film swings into body/brain/consciousness transplant territory, adding interesting shades of slow-burning paranoia to the obligatory jump scares.
Tangling itself in third, fourth and fifth act U-turns, Black Box hints at something closer to second-string Hitchcock and a cut-price Inception (the character name “Nolan” a less than subtle nod to some of the film’s biggest influences), but Osei-Kuffour stays a disappointing distance from the kind of heady madness the film deserves.
What we get instead, though, is Troy ‘Twisty’ James – the Canadian contortionist who found fame on America’s Got Talent – and landed a career as one of Hollywood’s best unseen horror actors (see the bendy monster in Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, the bendy monster in Hellboy and the bendy monster in pretty much everything else). Here he’s “Backwards Man”, stalking Nolan through his memories by creeping around like an upside-down spider, all cracked bones and bent limbs. He might seem like the most obvious concession made to the Blumhouse banner in an otherwise pretty strait-laced sci-fi thriller, but Backwards Man signals the only time Osei-Kuffour dares to push Black Box into all the weird places that it needs to go.
In desperate need of more energy, Black Box is surprisingly bland for a film about a guy running away from monsters in his own head – dipping its toes into a dozen different genres at once without ever really committing. Still, Athie does a great job wrangling the untamed script, Backwards Man looks suitably creepy, and there’s fun to be had trying to follow all the unexpected turns along the way. It would have worked better as a shorter, spikier episode of Black Mirror, but Black Box is worth a look if you like your sci-fi/horror/hybrid/B-movie/thrillers with plenty of twist.
- Director: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr
- Starring: Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Troy James
- Released: October 6 (Amazon Prime Video)