Producer: John Brister Director: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Jr. Screenplay: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Jr. and Stephen Herman Cast: Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine, Tosin Morohunfola, Charmaine Bingwa, Troy James, Donald Watkins, Najah Bradley, Nyah Marie Johnson and Troy James Distributor: Amazon Prime
The question of identity is at the center of “Black Box,” an intriguing but confusing and uneven sci-fi drama that’s part of a package of features the Blumhouse studio, famous for its low-budget horror movies, has made for Amazon Prime.
The screenplay by director Emmanuel Osei- Kuffour, Jr., and Stephen Herman, based on a story by the latter, focuses on Nolan (Mamoudou Athie), a news photographer who was left comatose (and at one point was actually declared brain-dead) by an auto accident in which his wife Rachel (Najah Bradley), a reporter, died. Now, months later, he has revived, but still suffers from amnesia, as well as bad dreams. His adolescent daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) has been forced effectively to assume head-of-household duties, bucking him up, reminding him of appointments and rebuking him when he does things he never used to—like smoking.
Depressed when the editor at the paper where he and Rachel were on staff declines to put him back on the payroll and he forgets to pick up Ava from school, Nolan visits his friend and physician Gary (Tosin Morohunfola), who encourages him to seek help from neurologist Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad), who’s involved in cutting-edge research on memory recovery. Desperate, Nolan agrees.
Brooks is only too eager to take on his case. Her tool is the titular device, which uses a headset that, through hypnosis, takes the wearer into a virtual world where he can actually experience blocked memories and, by doing so, recover them. The actual machine looks pretty chintzy (and the headgear resembles nothing more than a weird hairnet), but it works. Nolan does step back into his past.
But only to some degree. Faces are blurred, as though covered in cloth. At times the memories he encounters seem off (like recollections of spousal abuse) or simply erroneous—like scenes involving a woman other than his wife (Charmaine Bingwa) with a daughter (Nyah Marie Johnson) different from Ava. And there’s a strange figure, played by contortionist Troy James, that moves backward toward him, its limbs twisting and crackling in terrifyingly unreal poses. (James played a similarly creepy character in several episodes of “The Flash.”)
What’s going on here? The answer turns out to be one of the oldest in the horror-film playbook, the manipulation of science for reasons that are at least ethically dubious, if not morally reprehensible. But it’s grounded in domestic issues—the struggle to rebuild family—and the resolution comes down to Nolan’s determination to reclaim his bonds with Ava, and her willingness to do all she can to save him. And so like it or not, the conclusion of the movie can only be described as sentimental, even mushy—though that’s not permitted to prevent the addition of a disturbing coda.
Moreover, whatever the flaws of execution, “Black Box” does raise a real existential issue : whether our memories make us who we are, and if so, whether we become different people when those memories are altered. Many viewers may feel, however, that in raising such philosophical questions the movie might become more thoughtful but less effective simply as a genre piece.
This is obviously a low-budget affair, and as that hairnet headpiece suggests, it looks it. Within the resultant limitations, though, the craft contributors—particularly production designer Ryan Martin Dwyer and cinematographer Hilda Mercado—manage to create a fairly creepy atmosphere, especially when James makes one of his appearances, and Brandon Roberts’ score adds to the mood. Osei-Kuffour, along with editor Glenn Garland, maintains a good deal of tension even though the film runs a bit long, and he secures generally strong performances, especially from Athie and Rashad. Christine’s spunk is welcome, too.
The result is basically a psychological thriller with a few horror elements that has some interesting things to say, although it sometimes gets muddled in dramatizing them.