I feel like there are at least 400 movies entitled Black Box. Turns out there aren’t quite that many, but this hardly feels like an original or inspired title. Nor is the subject matter. Amnesia. Yes, amnesia. Do I need to say it again, or do you not even remember the word from literally seventeen words ago? My point is that amnesia has become a giant trope at this point, and to some extent a pretty big crutch when trying to set up a mystery tale. I am intrigued by Mamoudou Athie starring in just about anything, but was on my guard with the whole amnesiac thing bolted on to what seemed like a sci-fi horror hybrid tale.
And, yes, this film was pretty much what I thought it would be. A low-budget, somewhat “scary” movie with some junky yada-yada’d science and some twisty psychological narrative turns. Did I know that America’s mom, Phylicia Rashad, would be right in the middle of all this? I did not. But that was also a nice surprise. As was the cast overall, frankly. It’s great to see a cast – albeit a very small one — that didn’t throw in one actor of color just to check a box. All the leads in this film — along with director, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour — are African American. And, yes, I know there are films with black casts, but you just don’t see it much in genre films like this. Where, honestly, the race of the characters isn’t central, or even really addressed in either a direct or allegorical way. It’s a pretty straight-up high-concept, sci-fi film that could have starred any thirty-something white actor with little-to-no change to the script. But, of course, Athie is not just some actor….
Now that I’ve gotten my dumb sociology corner out of the way, I’m going to try to describe what happens here. Athie plays a dude named Nolan. Nolan survived a car accident that killed his wife. He’s left a widower with a ten-year-old daughter, Ava (Amanda Christine). He’s also left with a big hole in his memory and what amounts to some brain damage that keeps him from completing tasks he once did as a matter of course. Not like brushing his teeth or tying his shoes, but picking up his daughter from school and learned skills like cooking and braiding hair. He also apparently kinda sucks at his job now, which used to be photographing stuff. Another learned skill that just isn’t hitting. His wiped memory also keeps him from being able to properly bond with his daughter and mourn his wife. He also exhibits some violent anger that he (and his daughter) don’t recall being part of his personality prior to the accident.
Eventually, through his friend Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) — a doctor at the hospital where he’s getting treatment — he finds his way to neurologist, Lillian (Rashad). She is doing some experimental testing on memory recovery using a device she calls the black box. Aha! The black box is basically just some b.s. virtual reality headset that she straps onto him while twiddling some knobs. Inside the box Nolan relives moments from his past, but everyone’s faces are blurred and some dude with crackling limbs always sidles in contortionist style to interrupt his memories. Thus the “horror.” Because the trope of blurry faces of loved ones equals scary, I guess? Anyway, Nolan is obviously creeped out by crackly man. And is also confused and disturbed by some of the memories he’s unearthing. Apparently he was kind of a terrible person if these memories are to be believed. But are they!?
And therein lies the tension and the mystery. How can this dude, who seems by all accounts, to be a really good guy — a good father, friend and husband — actually be a bit of a monster? Are his buddy, Gary, and his daughter lying to him to protect his fragile condition? Because his returned memories aren’t matching up with the person he’s being told he used to be. WTF, man! I won’t give anything away here, but it becomes pretty evident that something is up with Dr. Lillie and her black box. The movie is called Black Box, man. Get a clue! They’re not going to name the thing after this creepy device unless it plays a part in the tension. And, honestly, did we not expect Rashad to play against type? And did we not expect that the person fucking with science and doing “edgy” stuff doesn’t have an ulterior motive? Because the mad scientist type is never the one drunk with power or scheming for something not totally altruistic. Have you not seen The Lawnmower Man? Or like any of the million Spider-Man movies?
Ultimately I’m not sure exactly how to feel about this movie. I appreciate the concise nature of the narrative. There isn’t much in the way of wasted energy or dalliances. But that also means that the whole thing feels like it was done on the cheap. Which it was. The tiny cast. The less-than-impressive effects. The desire to tell a story without really going into any detail about how anything actually works. I mean I appreciate the screen full of fake code that seventy-something Rashad quickly pecks out on her computer to presumably run the black box program. But it’s all pretty silly when you even scratch a little below the surface. Especially when you find out what the black box actually does. It’s asinine, really. But if you’re the type to ignore all of the details and facts in a story and just kind of focus on the overall feel, then Black Box could come off as successful. Entertaining, even. But, seriously, just kind of shut your logical brain off. Because if you don’t, you’ll unfortunately see this for the b-movie that it truly is. Though I suppose b-movies have a place in our film landscape just as much as the next eight trillion dollar Marvel crapfest. Right?