I missed watching this underrated 2021 movie until now. Don’t repeat my mistake

A man listens to his headphones in Black Box.
Studio Canal

2021 was a weird time to go to the movies. COVID was still a thing to be feared and protected from, and theatrical movies were few and far between. A trip to the theater meant venturing out into a landscape more The Last of Us than anything else. No, there weren’t any mutant monsters to encounter, but you had to mask up, arm yourself with the appropriate equipment (mostly hand sanitizer), and plot very carefully who you came into contact with and what surfaces you could or couldn’t touch.

As a result, I didn’t see many movies in theaters that year, and thus missed out on a lot of quality films I otherwise would’ve watched with a crowd of popcorn-munching strangers. Three years later, I’m still catching up, and recently, I discovered a great thriller from that period that no one talks about: Black Box.

Yeah, I had never heard of it either, and it was only by sheer luck that I decided to watch it one lonely June night. I’m glad I did, because it’s one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in the last five years. Equipped with a dense plot, confident direction, and a lead performance that’s both engaging and mysterious, Black Box draws inspiration from classic ’70s thrillers like The Conversation and The Parallax View to tell a story that is more topical now than ever, and more engaging than anything you can find on Netflix.

A by-the-numbers movie that evolves into something else

A man looks at his phone in Black Box.
Studio Canal

Black Box starts simply enough: a commercial airplane traveling from Paris to Dubai crashes in the French Alps, killing all passengers and crew on board, which prompts investigators to search for the aircraft’s black box to explain what went wrong. Mathieu Vasseur (Pierre Niney), an air safety investigator with extra sensitive hearing, is assigned to listen to the audio recordings that took place in the plane’s main cabin and cockpit to determine what happened and whether the crash was an accident.

That it’s immediately apparent that it’s not an accident is just one of the film’s clever surprises and red herrings. It’s not a big spoiler to reveal that Mathieu immediately zeroes in on a suspicious individual we the audience saw get up from his seat and walk toward the cockpit just moments before the plane crashes. Mathieu hears some commotion and phrases in Egyptian before the audio recording ends, which, when combined with what they find on the passenger’s computer, is all his superiors need to deem the crash the result of a terrorist attack. We’re just past the 30-minute mark here, and the case is seemingly closed. What else is there to explore?

Paranoid android

A man looks behind him in Black Box.
Studio Canal

As it turns out, there’s much more to the story. Mathieu isn’t entirely satisfied, especially when he finds inconsistencies with the official black box recording. Another passenger’s last voicemail to her family indicates that the suspected terrorist didn’t do it, and that the black box Mathieu was given had been altered. Why? And who would want to cover up a crash that had a seemingly obvious suspect and motive? It’s here where I’ll stop recounting Black Box‘s plot, as part of the pleasure of it is the audience witnessing Mathieu untangle the lies he’s been given in order to find the truth.

And the truth, once revealed, proves to be a doozy. (Again, no explicit spoilers here!) With its slick visuals and unobtrusive filmmaking, Black Box doesn’t seem like the heir apparent to the shaggy, counterculture conspiracy theory movies of the ’70s like Alan J. Pakula’s terrific The Parallax View or Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Conversation (which also used a suspect sound recording as a major plot point), but that’s what the movie transforms into in its second, unsettlingly tense hour. And while some scenes, like an elaborate chase sequence in an abandoned country home near the end, may stretch the film’s credibility, they are also undeniably thrilling.

A man looks at a laptop computer in Black Box.
Studio Canal

There’s a moment toward the climax when Mathieu has to submerge himself in a body of water in the dead of night, and the director, Yann Gozlan, holds the camera long enough to make wonder two things: What the hell is he doing, and if he’s died while he’s underwater. Intellectually, you know he probably hasn’t since the movie isn’t quite over, but it’s to Gozan’s credit as a filmmaker that he puts you on the edge of your seat in anticipation of the expected outcome. That’s a sign you’re watching a good thriller.

Boeing, Boeing

A man looks at a sad woman in Black Box.
Studio Canal

Although it was made in 2019 and released in 2021, Black Box is more topical now in 2024 than ever. Why? Well, I’m sure you’ve heard about the many mishaps involving the aircraft manufacturer Boeing, which has produced planes that have fallen apart in mid-flight. At the beginning of this year, a Boeing plane took off from Portland and lost an entire window after takeoff, resulting in a gaping hole that sucked the shirts off passengers nearby. No one was seriously hurt, but the incident caused the media to focus on the company and its past and present accidents.

Airline grounds all Boeing 737-9 after plane loses window after take-off | ABC News

In the months since then, not one but two Boeing whistleblowers have mysteriously died, and in June, Boeing’s CEO was called before Congress to answer for his company’s mistakes. Boeing isn’t mentioned in Black Box, but it’s not hard to imagine its fictional aircraft company as a convenient stand-in, and the efforts of Mathieu to uncover a conspiracy that is less fueled by politics than it is by corporate greed.

It’s in Black Box‘s final stretch, and the last act reveal of who is behind the cover-up and why, that the movie takes on a shocking relevance, and what seemed outlandish in 2021 is now all-too understandable in 2024 due to the recent revelations involving Boeing.

A topical thriller that’s endlessly entertaining

BLACK BOX | Official Trailer | STUDIOCANAL International

Yet even if you had no knowledge about what was going on with Boeing, Black Box still works as a gripping thriller that takes a potentially boring subject — air travel safety — and uses it as an effective vehicle to comment on a multitude of issues: how technology can both reveal the truth and be used to manipulate it; how big corporations prioritize profit margins over human lives; and why obsession can be the source for one man’s salvation, and the tool for his own destruction.

Black Box ends on a bittersweet note, as it must, but a thriller this good makes you feel giddy and alive. This is a movie that moves, and has a pulse. It’s a well-done piece of entertainment, one told with style and intelligence, and you won’t soon forget it.

Black Box is available to rent or purchase at Amazon Prime Video and other major digital vendors.