About an hour into “Black Box,” there’s a twist so good it almost salvages the cheesy B-movie that led up to it. This Blumhouse-produced debut from director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour blends the psychological uneasiness of an amnesiac’s plight with the ravings of a mad scientist, and the full premise suggests a clever marriage of “Total Recall” and “Get Out.” It lacks the inspired lunacy of the former and the fiery social commentary of the latter, but Osei-Kuffour (who co-wrote the movie with Wade Allain-Marcus and Stephen Herman) has constructed an enigmatic lo-fi thriller with just enough intricate mind games to make the eerie journey worthwhile.
The first point of comparison for “Black Box” is “Memento.” Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) survived a debilitating car accident that killed his wife and left him in a perpetual state of confusion, constantly forgetting details about his everyday life as his young daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) does her best to give him reminders to get through the day (eat your breakfast, drive me to school, and no, you don’t smoke). Nolan keeps experiencing strange signs that he’s still not himself, none more shocking than a hole in the wall that suggests he’s prone to blackouts and rage spirals.
His brother Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) ensures him that’s not the case, but Gary just happens to be a doctor at the same medical ward where his brother was treated, and hooks him up with a top-notch neuroscientist. Lillian (Phylicia Rashad, over the top but enjoyable) subjects Nolan to an experimental form of hypnosis that tosses him into a watered-down version of the Sunken Place, where some kind of spooky, crackling thing tries to strangle him. He’s terrified; she’s delighted, and says she can help him unearth his repressed demons.
And…scene, right? Not quite. From there, “Black Box” kicks into sci-fi gear, as Lillian reveals a VR memory device with the apparent ability to download Nolan’s memories and let him wander around them in search of answers to his past. Goggle in place, Nolan finds himself in a trippy labyrinth of rooms, some more dreadful than others, with a handy watch that allows him to move from one to the next. These kind of subjective journeys down memory lane have been represented in countless movies about the queasy nature of the subjective experience, and “Black Box” lifts from the best of them with snappy, disorienting edits and effects that keep Nolan’s journey in a constant state of uncertainty.
The two moments that come back to him the most, a wedding and an apartment showdown, both find him surrounded by blurry faces — and that creepy humanoid. He confronts the terror with the mantra provided by his doctor (“I run my mind, it doesn’t run me” becomes a dubious statement as things develop), but it isn’t until he starts investigating the memories that the mystery deepens: If these are Nolan’s memories, why are they so unfamiliar?
The answer arrives with a fascinating new character (Donald Elise Watkins) and his relationship to a woman named Miranda (Charmaine Bingwa) whom Nolan encounters for reasons he can’t sort out. The big revelation of “Black Box” leads to an intriguing exploration of broken families, profound regrets, and the prospects of second chances, though it all crops up under such ludicrous circumstances that none of the actors can muster convincing responses to these bizarre, body-shifting circumstances. Outrageous in its plot and humorless in its direction, the movie lingers on its shrewd twist just long enough to make the routine circumstances that follow feel like a slog.
As one of the few Black horror movies to make the rounds since “Get Out” (and this one has an all-Black cast), Osei-Kuffour’s debut is notable for the way it navigates the issue of race while allowing the underlying metaphor to be more expansive. The movie deals with an identity crisis that has many layers, some of which would constitute spoilers if they were revealed here, but the one that’s most appealing is the fear of looking in the mirror and not knowing who looks back. As Nolan, Athie (“The Get Down”) gives a performance so nuanced and fraught with uncertainty that it outshines the underlying silliness of the story that surrounds him, especially as the character begins to realize the cause of his ailment. “Black Box” won’t galvanize audiences like “Get Out” into rethinking the way society interacts with itself. But it’s just shrewd enough to question how we interact with ourselves.
“Black Box” is now streaming on Amazon as part of the Welcome to the Blumhouse collection.