Black Box (2020) Review

Amazon’s new thriller plays deceiving mind games

Rhea Srivastava -

Black Box (2020) Review
Amazon Prime Video
Movie Rated

It’s either this or that this season. What I mean is, if we aren’t being served escapist fluff on OTT, more often than not, an original film in the psychological horror genre toys with Black Mirror-esque ideas of how technology will dictate our future as humans. It’s also Halloween season, so Amazon presents not one but several original films under the ‘Welcome to the Blumhouse’ banner to keep us subtly scared (and intrigued) till the holiday actually rolls around by the end of the month. The result is the smartly-titled ‘Black Box,’ Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr’s film about a technology that holds on to an individual’s core memories even after they are rendered brain-dead. This technology can be channelled by way of a combination of virtual reality and hypnosis, enabling anyone to access them again. Where the ‘black box’ technology differs from its popular counterpart is that instead of just holding on to the important parts of our living consciousness, it could control your memories and then you, hence, manipulating or abusing the possessor into altering those memories.

What is the story about?

In this story, we are introduced to Nolan (Mamoudou Athie), a professional photographer who seems to be suffering from amnesia after a serious accident. The same accident killed his wife, Rachel, and hence, his 10-year-old daughter Ava (Amanda Christie) has had to become his surrogate caretaker in every way possible. Striving to recover, Nolan often finds himself flashing into a personality that doesn’t seem like his past self. He seeks the guidance of Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad), a cognitive scientist who is running an experimental study of the digital hypnosis ‘black box’ technology. This allows Nolan to inhabit his memories virtually. But are those memories really his?


Much like the subliminal messaging of Jordan Peele’s work, the core horror element of Black Box is far beyond the tradition of jump-scares and eerie visuals. The film attempts to weave a narrative around the possibility that visuals that we download into our consciousness have the capability of infiltrating even the deepest parts of our memory and thus, changing the very personality that makes us, us. That this is an Amazon film is just the ironic cherry atop the cake. 
The first session that Nolan has with Dr. Brooks introduces us to the technology which is nothing but a blank space with a white ‘plus sign’ that needs to be followed around as it moves, to enter into the viewer’s safe space. Once Nolan enters into a visual representation of his daughter’s bedroom, he is able to access different fragments of his memories. But these scenes are dark and murky, in locations that are unrecognizable to him, people having blurred faces, and finally, a spider-like contorted figure who appears out of nowhere with the agenda to get Nolan to leave his own sub-conscious and disappear permanently. The initial scenes are extremely disturbing and are aided by an uncomfortably creepy background score, a constant sound effect of crackling, and finally an unsettling handheld camera. The director steers clear of any additional VFX to create a futuristic or out-of-the-ordinary experience, which usually seems to be the case with such narrative. Instead, the viewer is constantly in flux if this figure represents personalities within the same body, or a tussle between the id and the ego, or an entirely new being itself. 
It is as Nolan’s sessions continue that the mystery behind the disturbing elements in his memories start to unravel and also when the movie starts losing its intriguing pace and unpredictability. The final revelation is a bit by-the-book, even if the writing tries to subvert it by giving a fresh back-story to the figure we’re scared of so far. The minute we are forced to focus on the emotional relationship between a father and daughter, and how they are bound together by grief, is when we begin to detach from the story and its characters. The climax has been structured and visualized well, even if seems a bit underwhelming in terms of having an elusive explanation. 


The film works on a minimal cast, with the action focused mostly on four characters. All of them do a competent job of displaying the complexity of their grief. Since the cast is entirely black, the plot can be read as a larger allegory of white symbols settling into diasporic consciousness. 


Music & Other Departments

Brandon Roberts’ score and Hilda Mercado’s photography, along with some intriguing lighting and set design are strong elements for Black Box. Once again, the fact that the film comes with minimal effects goes to show the strength of the writing.


If you are someone who gets put off by the usage of the term ‘horror’ (which has popularly come to describe supernatural movies) for films like Get Out or The Cell, then you will be pleased because Black Box keeps actual scares to the minimum. Osei-Kuffour Jr. does an interesting job of creating a slightly sci-fi-ish world where technology is able to tap into the darkest corners of our mind. The premise itself and the characters who get to play are pretty solid.


But this is just a part of the grander narrative and we never attach to the more human elements of the story. The plot also feels the need to bring in a lot of extra burdens and then wrap it up in the second half. Some characters need a bit more time to understand their motivations. Overall, everything feels a bit too slow at the beginning and a bit too rushed at the end.  

Did I enjoy it?

Sure. There was something missing in bringing everything together at the end, but I didn’t mind it as a one-time watch.

Do I recommend it?

Yes. Black Box is a solid-enough thriller that has some memorable elements, even if it’s not quite up there with the Jordan Peeles and Christopher Nolans in terms of some serious mind-f***.


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