Review: ‘Black Box’ (2021), starring Pierre Niney, Lou de Laâge and André Dussollier

April 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pierre Niney in “Black Box” (Photo by Thibault Grabherr/Film Distrib US)

“Black Box” (2022)

Directed by Yann Gozlan

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Paris in 2020, the dramatic film “Black Box” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few people of Middle Eastern heritage) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An employee for the BEA (the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety) does not agree that a plane crash that killed 300 people was caused by a terrorist, so he goes rogue with his own investigation. 

Culture Audience: “Black Box” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted thrillers about the aviation industry.

Pierre Niney and Lou de Laâge in “Black Box” (Photo by Thibault Grabherr/Film Distrib US/IcarusFilms)

“Black Box” is a taut and stylish thriller about the investigation into a plane crash that killed 300 people. The end of the movie has some improbable dramatics, but the movie’s acting and suspense make this story worth watching. “Black Box” also has excellent sound design, which is crucial to how people can be immersed in this particular film. Even though some of the plot’s twists and turns look like they could only be in a movie, “Black Box” does have an overall realistic narrative about about what can go on behind the scenes in finding out what happened in a such a tragic plane crash.

Directed by Yann Gozlan, “Black Box” takes place in Paris in 2020. Gozlan co-wrote the screenplay with Nicolas Bouvet-Levrard and Simon Moutairou. This fictional movie shows what happened before and after the plane crash of an Atrian 800 European 24 plane traveling from Dubai to Paris on October 8, 2020. The plane, which weighed 251 tons, was considered one of the top commercial aircrafts in the world, with no previous history of malfunctioning. The BEA (the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety) is in charge of finding out what caused this plane crash.

BEA employee Mathieu Vasseur (played by Pierre Niney) is an audio analyst specialist, who often has to do analyses of cockpit voice recorders (CVRs), which are usually the best evidence of what the pilots experienced and said in the moments before the crash. A CVR has the nickname “black box,” because it was originally manufactured as a black box. Nowadays, a CVR is almost always orange, but the nickname “black box” continues to be used to describe it.

Mathieu, who is in his 30s, is very meticulous and has the reputation of being an audio nerd. His immediate supervisor is named Victor Pollack (played by Olivier Rabourdin), who knows Mathieu has nitpicky tendencies, which often get on Victor’s nerves. An early scene in the movie shows Mathieu and Victor doing an analysis of a helicopter crash, which was caught on video. The helicopter did not have a black box, but Victor determines that the cause of the crash was the helicopter had a faulty tail rotor.

Mathieu disagrees, and he tells Victor that they should do more investigating to be absolutely sure. However, Victor shuts down Mathieu questioning Victor’s decision. Victor asking Mathieu if he wants Balsan to take over the assignment. Viewers can easily figure out, even before Balsan (played by Guillaume Marquet) appears in the movie, that Balsan is a rival co-worker of Mathieu. Victor knows it, and he is using this rivalry to make Mathieu feel insecure.

And sure enough, when the news arrives about the Atrian 800 European 24 plane crash, Victor chooses Balsan, not Mathieu, to be a part of the investigation team. There’s not much Mathieu can do about it except complain to his understanding wife Noémie Vasseur (played by Lou de Laâge) in a phone conversation that he has with her in the BEA parking lot. While in the parking lot, Mathieu is walking and talking on the phone, when his hard plastic briefcase accidentally scratches the side of a parked car and causes minor but noticeable damage to the car.

Mathieu looks in the car and sees from the photo parking ID that it belongs to Victor. He also notices that the car has a surveillance camera next to the interior mirror. And the camera recorded Mathieu looking into the car. Mathieu doesn’t have time to worry about if his boss Victor will figure out that Mathieu was the one who scratched his car. However, this car surveillance camera becomes a crucial part of the story later.

Noémie is also in the aviation industry. She currently works at the Aeronautic and Space Safety Agency (ASSA), where she is on a committee that decides if France-based airplanes and other aircraft pass inspection and safety regulations. However, Noémie has already given ASSA notice that she is leaving ASSA to start a high-ranking executive job in the following month with Atrian, the airline company that owned the plane that crashed. Atrian’s CEO Claude Varins (played by Aurélien Recoing) personally recruited Noémie for the job.

Meanwhile, BEA launches its investigation into the plane crash. Victor, Balsan and other members of the investigation team have taken the CVR for initial analysis. Only a day or two into the investigation, Victor suddenly disappears. BEA chief Philippe Rénier (played by André Dussollier) isn’t too concerned at first, because he says it’s not unusual for Victor to go missing for a few days and then come back.

And so, with Victor gone and with Balsan busy with other things in the investigation, Philippe gives Mathieu the responsibility to lead the audio analysis of the CVR. It’s a major responsibility that Mathieu takes with the utmost of seriousness. During the analysis of the moments before the crash, he hears a man yell in Arabic: “Allahu Akbar!,” which essentially translates to “God is great!” in English.

Through more analysis, Mathieu comes to the conclusion that a male passenger, probably a terrorist, entered the cockpit while a flight attendant left the cockpit door open to deliver a meal to the two pilots. It’s soon reported on the TV news that a 26-year-old Egyptian named Moqtada Sualazi was a passenger on the plane. The TV news anchor says that “reliable sources” claim that this passenger was a radical Islamist.

The investigation is closed, with the crash blamed on a passenger who is suspected of being a terrorist who acted alone. Mathieu is praised as the hero of the investigation. However, when Mathieu goes back and listens to the CVR again, he notices that certain sound levels and frequencies are very mismatched in the recording. Mathieu asks BEA colleague named Samir Jellab (played by Mehdi Djaadi), who’s an expert on Atrian planes, for some information to help in the investigation. Mathieu starts to wonder if the CVR could have been tampered with and if his first conclusion was wrong.

Even though Mathieu knows it could hurt his credibility to put doubt on his own initial conclusion, he takes his concerns to Philippe, who dismisses Mathieu’s doubts. Philippe is also thinking of the BEA’s reputation, which he doesn’t want to be compromised with an embarrassing admission of an investigation mistake for this deadly plane crash. The BEA would also have to answer to the French government and the loved ones of the plane crash victims if the BEA made this huge error in the investigation.

With all of these things at stake, Mathieu takes a big risk to secretly launch his own investigation. His boss Victor has disappeared for enough days that Victor is declared a missing person. Why did Victor goes missing during this extremely important BEA investigation? Was his disappearance a coincidence?

The rest of “Black Box” shows what happens in Mathieu’s investigation, which ends up putting a strain on his happy marriage to Noémie. His investigation includes some illegal acts and a possible target on his back because he’s showing all the signs of being a whistleblower. One of the people whom Mathieu inevitably encounters is aeronautics executive Xavier Renaud (played by Sébastien Pouderoux), a recently appointed CEO of Pegase Security, a company that does civil aviation security for Atrian.

“Black Box” has several aspects that are commentaries on what airplane security officials are willing to cover up in order avoid scandals and keep their jobs. It’s not far-fetched at all, considering what’s been revealed about safety issues in Boeing plane crashes. The movie generally has good acting from the cast members, led by Niney as Mathieu. Niney gives a convincing performance as an earnest employee who is willing to do what it takes to get to the truth—even if it costs him his career, reputation or more.

The movie falters a bit when it comes to showing Mathieu as a one-man investigative juggernaut with some “too good to be true” coincidences and scenarios that help him in his cause. For example, there’s a scene where he dives into a large body of water and looks for something that he ends up finding, as if he’s suddenly a James Bond “superspy” type of character. There’s also something that happens with leaked confidential information. It would be too easy to figure out that only two people had access to the computer where this leaked information was sent. But in the movie, only one person gets the blame for it.

Despite these minor flaws in the screenplay, “Black Box” offers plenty of intrigue for people who like mysteries. Some of the plot twists are very easy to predict, while others are not as obvious. The movie wraps up in a very contrived way that seems a little too rushed. But by then, most viewers will feel invested enough in the characters and in a certain outcome. And that’s why the movie’s ending should satisfy people with those expectations.

Distrib Films US and Icarus Films released “Black Box” in New York City on April 29, 2022. The movie is set for release in the Los Angeles area on May 6, 2022, with more U.S. cities to follow. “Black Box” was released in Europe in 2021.

Review: ‘Black Box’ (2020), starring Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine, Tosin Morohunfola, Charmaine Bingwa and Troy James

October 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mamoudou Athie and Phylicia Rashad in “Black Box” (Photo by Alan Markfield/Amazon Studios)

“Black Box” (2020)

Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi/horror movie “Black Box” has a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widowed father suffers from amnesia because of the car accident that killed his wife, and he undergoes a radical scientific experiment to try to recover his memories.

Culture Audience: “Black Box” will appeal primarily to people who like horror movies that blend science fiction with family drama and have unexpected twists.

Amanda Christine and Mamoudou Athie in “Black Box” (Photo by Alfonso Bresciani/Amazon Studios)

At first glance, the sci-fi/horror film “Black Box” seems to be a story about how unchecked scientific experiments can wreak havoc on someone’s life. But beneath all the creepy and mind-bending scenes is a story about yearning for chances to start over and renew relationships with loved ones. Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., “Black Box” has some familiar influences (the 1990 film “Total Recall” immediately comes to mind), but the movie has its own unique elements that make it a worthwhile offering for people who like horror movies where a lot of terror can exist in someone’s mind.

“Black Box” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. The movie is the feature-film debut of Osei-Kuffour, who co-wrote the “Black Box” screenplay with Stephen Herman. It’s not a straightforward movie that is supposed to be told chronologically. Instead, viewers have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, just like fragmented memories that could become whole.

In “Black Box,” Nolan Wright (played by Mamoudou Athie) is a 33-year-old photographer and widowed father who is struggling physically, financially and emotionally. He is recovering from a car accident that killed his wife Rachel six months ago and left him in a coma. When he emerged from the coma, he found out that he has amnesia, and he is now coping with feelings for guilt over Rachel’s death and the stress of not remembering a great deal of his life.

Because of his injuries and ongoing recovery, Nolan hasn’t been able to work, and the bills are piling up. There’s a wall in Nolan’s living room that looks like it was punched in anger, and it’s later revealed in the movie that he punched the wall because he got frustrated over being hounded by bill collectors. This type of violence goes against Nolan’s mild-mannered nature. He’s also a kind and attentive father.

Nolan’s lively and very precocious daughter Ava (played by Amanda Christine), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, has become the “lady” of their household. She helps Nolan get ready in the morning, makes meals and helps him remember things, since Nolan as short-term and long-term memory loss. Nolan worries that the big chunks of his life that he doesn’t remember are memories that he’ll never get back.

In the beginning of the movie, Nolan is ready to go back to work at the magazine job he used to have before the car accident. He has a meeting with his former boss Cathy (played by Gretchen Koerner), who also used to be the supervisor for Nolan’s late wife Rachel. But Cathy tells him some bad news: She can’t rehire Nolan because her publisher boss doesn’t think that Nolan’s current work doesn’t reach the same quality level as his past work.

Nolan’s best friend is a doctor named Gary (played by Tosin Morohunfola), who offers to lend Nolan money to help pay Nolan’s bills, but Nolan is politely declines to accept this offer. Nolan tells Gary about being rejected by his former job, and Gary comforts Nolan by telling him, “You don’t need to change your career, Nolan. You just need to remember who you are.”

While Nolan is visiting Gary at the hospital where Gary works, Gary recommends that Nolan try undergoing some of the experimental memory treatments conducted by Dr. Lillian Brooks (played by Phylicia Rashad), who is considered a somewhat controversial visionary because not all of her experiments have been government-approved. And it just so happens that a video of Dr. Brooks giving an instructional lecture to an audience is playing in the waiting room where Nolan is sitting.

Feeling he’s got nothing to lose, Nolan makes an appointment with Dr. Brooks, who knows Nolan’s personal and medical history and decides he’s a good candidate for her Black Box memory recovery experiments. Dr. Brooks tells Nolan that the Black Box converts memories into an “immersive virtual experience, like a dream.” Therefore, when Nolan gets a Black Box treatment, he will have a virtual recreation of his memories.

Dr. Brooks puts Nolan under hypnosis, where he sees himself in a house with different rooms. Before he goes into the trance, Dr. Brooks tells him that the first room he will be in is a “safe room.” There are no safes in this room, but it’s supposed to represent the safest room in the house and the room that Nolan has to be in if he wants to emerge safely from the hypnosis.

Nolan can go from room to room by pushing down on the crown of an imaginary analog watch. However, he cannot open the doors in the safe room. If he wants to leave the safe room, he has to use the watch. And what Nolan sees when he goes under hypnosis would be enough for most people to completely call off the Black Box experiment.

While under hypnosis, Nolan has flashes of memories, but the other people in these memories have their faces blurred out and the rooms are usually very shadowy or dark. One vivid memory that Nolan relives is his wedding ceremony in the church where it took place. But what’s supposed to be happy memory turns into a nightmare.

An unwelcome guest emerges from a church pew. It’s an unknown humanoid creature that can contort limbs at sickening angles. The menacing creature is called Backwards Man (played by Troy James), and every time it moves, you can hear the sound of bones cracking. Just like everyone else in these visions, the face of Backwards Man is obscured. Every time Backwards Man sees Nolan, the creature rushes to attack Nolan, who then has to quickly find a way back to the safe room so that he can come out from the hypnosis.

The first time that Nolan has this terrifying experience, he’s hesitant to go back under hypnosis again. But his desire to recover his memories outweighs any fear that he has, so he goes back under hypnosis again. Another vision that he sees is of a bruised and crying woman in a kitchen. It appears that someone in the home has beaten her and she’s afraid of that person.

Nolan has never seen this woman before, but he later finds out that her name is Miranda (played by Charmaine Bingwa), and she doesn’t live very far from Nolan. He also sees in his visions that Miranda has a crying baby in another room. And once again, Backwards Man suddenly appears to try to attack Nolan.

Nolan begins to wonder if the visions he’s seeing are really memories or delusions. He asks Gary if he’s ever had a history of abusing women. Gary tells Nolan absolutely not and says that Nolan and Rachel were an ideal, loving couple. Gary only remembers bits and pieces of his marriage to Rachel, so he has to take Gary’s word for it. (There’s no mention in the story if Nolan has any other relatives. If he does, he doesn’t communicate with them and vice versa.)

The mysteries of Nolan’s strange Black Box visions are explained by the end of the film. Throughout the movie, “Black Box” writer/director Osei-Kuffour achieves a delicate balance between the Nolan who’s trying to keep things together in the “real world” to be a responsible parent and the Nolan who keeps getting pulled back into the dark and murky world of the Black Box memory experiments. Nolan isn’t quite sure what’s being done to his mind but he’s willing to risk everything just to get back his memories.

But the darker world of these memory experiments spills over into Nolan’s real world, as he has nightmares and blackouts that affect his ability to function as normally as he would like. For example, one day he forgets to pick up Ava from school (it’s not the first time it’s happened), and the concerned teacher who brings Ava home threatens to report Nolan to child protective services if it happens again.

As Nolan, Athie does an admirable job of portraying someone who’s torn between these two worlds, while Christine shows a lot of talent as a child who’s perceptive beyond the level of most children her age. Nolan and Ava’s father/daughter relationship is adorable and realistic. Rashad portrays Dr. Brooks as someone who is passionate about her work, but the movie doesn’t really go into details about other patients whom Dr. Brooks has treated. The only work with patients that Dr. Brooks is shown doing in the movie is her Black Box sessions with Nolan.

The Backwards Man in “Black Box” brings some chills, but this contortionist creature looks too human and familiar for it to become a horror villain that people will be talking about for years. (When the face of Backwards Man is finally revealed, it’s no surprise.) Ultimately, the message of “Black Box” is that no matter how advanced technology becomes and how many material possessions people can have, people’s human connections and memories have intangible value and are treasured the most.

Prime Video premiered “Black Box” on October 6, 2020.

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