Arts, Features

‘Black Box’ is a solid film that can’t move out its predecessors’ shadow

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

“Black Box,” a horror film from the same company that produced “Get Out,” analyzes trauma through the lens of amnesiac widower Nolan, played by Mamoudou Athie, who struggles to take care of his daughter after his wife passes away.

“Black Box,” a horror film by director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., debuted on Amazon
Tuesday. ILLUSTRATION BY LAURYN ALLEN/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

The Amazon Original, directed by newcomer Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., began streaming Tuesday and is part of a series of film collaborations between Amazon and Blumhouse Television. Despite its intrigue, “Black Box” can just barely justify its existence when its body horror premise has been executed far better before.

The viewer is brought into the “Black Box” narrative just as Nolan is: not knowing what has happened before the film began.

Similar to “Get Out” — the 2017 thriller exploring race relations with a horror twist — “Black Box” uses hypnosis as the inciting incident to set the events of the film in motion. After several doctors are unsuccessful in bringing back Nolan’s memory, he undergoes experimental hypnotic treatment with a “black box” that helps bring back his memory.

The doctor giving him the treatment, Lilian Brooks, is played by Phylicia Rashad, who most notably played Clair Huxtable in “The Cosby Show.” This casting is not coincidental, given the central twist revealed two-thirds of the way into the movie.

The hypnosis treatment is a red herring for revealing to the audience that the consciousness living in Nolan’s body is not actually Nolan, but rather Thomas Brooks — Lilian Brooks’ son who passed away three years prior. Thomas had also had a child and had been married to a different woman whom he physically abused.

When Nolan realizes this, he has to decide whether to continue with the treatment or to allow his consciousness to fade away, giving the film some merit to stand on its own as a drama rather than a straight horror.

This body swapping, while done in countless other films, can only remind one of “Get Out” for a variety of reasons: both films are Blumhouse productions, both have a majority-Black cast and both center themselves around a protagonist who reluctantly undergoes hypnosis that allows the antagonist to introduce a new consciousness into the body.

While it is unclear who can be called the protagonist — the majority of the film takes place through Thomas’s perspective while using Nolan as an unwilling vessel — Rashad gives a thoroughly convincing performance as an antagonist. Rashad, in a movie-stealing performance akin to Hannibal Lecter’s short screen time in “The Silence of the Lambs,” is a sympathetic villain that gives the film some merit.

Beyond Rashad’s performance, the film is competently acted, though not much better than that. Average acting aside, the film manages to stay entertaining, as the twist midway through — while still making the film feel a little too familiar — is more than enough to keep the viewer hooked.

The film ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, which feels disappointingly sequel-baiting. When Brooks’ evil intentions are revealed, the film could have ended with her losing her doctor license instead of previewing a possible loose end. This does not lessen the quality of the rest of the film, but still cheapens the impact of Brooks having lost her job in order to unethically bring back her son.

“Black Box,” in order to justify being made, needed to have an unlikable protagonist and a sympathetic villain to contrast itself with “Get Out” due to the striking similarities between the films. As a film, “Black Box” cannot stack up to the initial shock of “Get Out”’s ingenious set-up, but the Osei-Kuffour-directed film ultimately does not need to.

While “Get Out” is a masterwork in social commentary, using the thriller genre as a trojan horse, “Black Box” is a solid family drama disguised as a body horror.

What “Black Box” lacks in originality, it makes up for with a charming antagonist and a compelling story. While the film cannot stand as tall as its horror predecessors, “Black Box” is still a solid film: nothing more, nothing less.

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