Buckle up. “Black Box” is the kind of smart, taut conspiracy thriller Hollywood used to consistently make, only this one hails from France, which has been beating the American studios at their own game lately in the good-movies-for-grown-ups department. (Heck, most countries now do a better job than the U.S. at respecting the audience’s intelligence.) Centered on the eponymous device, recovered from a freak airplane accident, this engaging if slightly overlong film stars Pierre Niney as an obsessive forensic analyst who hears the words “Allahu Akbar!” on a recovered cockpit voice recorder and can’t quite believe his ears.
If the setup sounds a bit like Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out,” that’s hardly a bad thing, except “Black Box” centers on high-altitude hijinks, rather than a Chappaquiddick-like car crash. Opening the movie in mid-air, director Yann Gozlan leaves the crisis mostly up to the imagination, firing our neurons rather than our adrenaline receptors as he dollies backward from the cockpit, through the cabin, all the way to the tail of the plane, where the black box is stored. Fun fact: These devices are now bright orange, not black, but were so called back in the day, when the flight recorders used photosensitive material.
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Audiences may recognize Niney as the adorable young actor who played Yves Saint Laurent, though he comes across buttoned up and borderline autistic here as a dweeby Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis investigator, so intense as to be almost unlikable. His character, Mathieu Vasseur, would’ve loved to be a pilot, but his eyesight grounded that career. Now, he overcompensates by being better at his desk job than anyone needs him to be — especially the BEA boss (André Dussollier) who’d be just as happy to sweep a commercial airline crash under the rug.
If it really was a terrorist attack, that could mean war, though such an explanation would certainly be more convenient for corporate interests than an instrument malfunction. After taking audiences through the steps of how such a postmortem is conducted, Mathieu stands up at a press conference and pulls a Colin Powell: His premature conclusions let the airline off the hook.
Then Mathieu’s manager (Olivier Rabourdin) goes missing, and he starts to sniff around on his own time. Mathieu starts to hear how pilots aren’t getting the training they need to use the new autopilot system. This detail seems to be lifted directly from a real-world case involving Boeing’s 737 MAX planes, which were grounded after two high-profile crashes: Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. The controversy is detailed in Netflix documentary “Aftershock,” which points out problems in a system where engineers working for the company were given the authority to certify their own aircraft, rather than relying on the FAA.
Much of contemporary audiences’ mistrust of corporations stems from decades of Hollywood movies taking them to task for prioritizing profits over safety. But there are complicated legal and political reasons why movies like “Silkwood” don’t get made as often today. Instead, we get generic Trumpian villains of the largely brainless variety — which makes a movie such as this, unafraid to wade into the technical weeds, all the more gratifying. The film unfolds like a Michael Crichton page-turner: informed by real science, heightened by human-interest details, like the on-again-off-again girlfriend (Lou de Laâge) who’s gone to work for the enemy.
Gozlan and co-writers Simon Moutaïrou and Nicolas Bouvet-Levrard imagine a kind of Achilles’ heel whereby someone can hack into the entertainment system and override the cockpit controls, effectively remote-controlling the plane. It’s a terrifying idea, since air travel is scary enough for those already anxious about putting their lives in someone else’s hands.
Now imagine if someone could do the same thing to the computer inside your car. “Black Box” takes those fears and packages them in a sleek and surprising procedural. Since it’s French, there are no guarantees that we’ll get the kind of happy ending to which American audiences are accustomed. (In fact, the last act fulfills a different kind of French cliché.) But it’s satisfying all the same, even if peering inside this particular black box is likely to make your next flight feel that much more turbulent.
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