Even for the twisty paranoid thriller sub-genre, there is a whole lot going on in Yann Gozlan’s Black Box. Not boring yet not quite enveloping, the film never reaches its boiling point despite plenty of bluster. The story concerns Mathieu (Pierre Niney), a young black box analyst tasked with examining the recorded remains of a tragic plane crash. All 300 passengers died in what appears to be a terrorist attack aboard a brand-new aircraft. The deeper Mathieu digs, the more complicated things, of course, become. This plus a senior colleague (Olivier Rabourdin) who mysteriously disappeared breeds an obsession to discover the truth. A request to quickly clean up the mess from his stalwart supervisor (André Dussollier), alongside some willful ignorance from a friendly airline executive (Sébastien Pouderoux), and additional pressure from Mathieu’s own partner Noemie (Lou de Laâge)––herself responsible for certifying the planes that fly, including the one in question––make his job that much more difficult.

Gozlan does well to frontload the stakes, opening on a one-er that moves down the fuselage of the doomed plane moments before the crash. The sound design of the crucial black box recording is also established immediately. This is a great piece of filmmaking, powerful and distinct audio to drive the narrative in toto. At times there is too much reliance on an overbearing score, and an aesthetic decision to fade or cut to black in moments of drama saps energy from crucial moments. Niney has a great look for this type of character. He’s thin and wiry, big-eyed. His social coldness turns off his co-workers and makes him harder to believe. For better or worse he appears cursed from the instant we meet him. If this perhaps takes something away from the overall tension of the piece, it’s incredibly effective scene to scene.

A screenplay credited to Gozlan, Simon Moutairou, and Nicolas Bouvet-Levrard (with the collaboration of Jérémie Guez) bears clear inspiration from the recent Boeing 737 MAX crashes, and details mined from the real-life BEA (Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety) make up some of the more exciting sections. Watching Mathieu examine the audio (adjust levels, isolate sounds, etc.) recalls genre staples Blow Out or The Conversation. Yet Black Box never reaches those lofty heights as a whole, the energy of its investigatory scenes unmatched elsewhere. Furthermore, the mystery at its center is needlessly convoluted, harangued by one too many red herrings. A tense, well-directed third-act climax is immediately followed by a woefully contrived, generic final scene that betrays some of the pseudo-realism already established.

One recalls Roman Polanski’s masterful The Ghost Writer as a recent conspiratorial comparison piece. The crucial difference is playfulness. The Ghost Writer has it. Black Box does not. For all his specificity, one wishes Gozlan was having more fun. This is ultimately a thrill ride slowed down by self-seriousness.

Black Box opens in theaters on April 29.

Grade: C+

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