Time travel is a tricky genre because it is inherently deceptive. If a filmmaker focuses too much on the “science” or the gimmick of time travel, the movie itself isn’t as compelling because A) time travel isn’t as novel as a genre as it once was and B) ultimately the movie is about the characters and their journey. The time travel aspect itself is a conduit by which their trials, tribulations and characterization is explored. In Black Hollow Cage, the primary focus is anguish and time travel only plays a small part in dissecting it. Before you read on, there are spoilers in this review.
Synopsis: “A girl who lives secluded in a house in the woods with the only company of her father and a wolfhound finds among the trees a mysterious cubic device with the ability to change the past.”
At its core, Black Hollow Cage isn’t strictly time-travel movie, as that is just one of many sci-fi elements the director incorporates into the story. In fact, it is probably the least important and least impressive part of the film. The film opens with Alice (daughter of Adam) receiving a robotic forearm to replace the one she is missing – due to some unnamed accident. A doctor walks her through its use and how she will need to accept that becoming adept at using it will take time and perseverance. This is visually relayed in three wooden rods of increasing diameter – the widest being the most difficult for Alice to pick up with her new hand. Right away this sci-fi element is an important one when it comes to understand Black Hollow Cage. This robot arm is a foreign element forced upon a young girl who has recently undergone a tragedy in her life. Not only does she associate this robotic arm with that tragedy, but also the anger she feels at her father – who she believes caused it. This is a psychological element to this new appendage often overlooked in sci-fi. Black Hollow Cage doesn’t romanticize the idea of having a robotic arm by giving it futuristic gadgets or accessories that make it seem cool; it acts, very plainly, as a less-than-optimal replacement for an actual human forearm. Aside from being very basic, it’s uncomfortable and cannot be worn in the shower. This robotic arm is a clue to the audience that Black Hollow Cage is not a hyper-stylized futuristic world.
Alice’s mother is only heard through a voice box attached to a dog. It appears the dog has the mother’s consciousness inside of it, but that is never made explicitly clear. What’s interesting about this technology is how the film doesn’t dwell on the how or why this dog is now acting as Alice’s mother, but instead lets the audience quietly take in this dynamic. Alice clearly treats the dog as if it were actually her mother, but her father won’t accept it – perhaps out of guilt? The relationship between Alice and her dog/mom is free of the tension and drama you’d expect from such a bizarre setup. Does this imply this kind of technology is common place? As with Alice’s new arm, this sci-fi aspect is treated with a impassive starkness in favor of highlighting Alice’s relationship with her surrogate mom. Having lost her real mom in an accident, she clings to the new form of her mother, often preferring its company to that of her father’s.
Erika and Paul are introduced as outsiders, disrupting Alice’s grieving process and ultimately introducing the time travel aspect. Similar to the robot arm and digital mom voice box, the sci-fi/time travel elements are treated with the same kind of cold indifference. Even the name of the film itself reduces the device down to adjectives and abstractions – black, hollow, cage. As Alice begins to experiment with the cage, it acts more as a projection of her own anguish. Only she can control it (notably, it does not respond to her robotic hand, only her remaining human hand) and as she begins to come to terms with the accident, the cage’s power seems to increase from simply leaving notes across time to full-on time travel for Alice.
(Major spoilers, incoming) The film is completely unnerving from start to finish. The cinematography and pacing of the film leave you peering around in paranoid anticipation. While the conventions of the time-travel genre are played with a bit, the film stays rooted close to Alice’s emotional trauma and her evolution beyond it. For most of the film she is in a funk that prevents her from moving past the accident. It is only when she masters the use of her new arm, witnesses the death (again) of her mother (in the form of an attacker killing her dog) and seeing that the accident that took her mother also gravely affected another family to the point it drove them to murder for Alice to fully accept what the black, hollow cage lurking in the forest is capable of.
For a film so heavily laden with science fiction technology to not romanticize or focus on the “gimmicks” of the genre is a big gamble, especially in terms of capturing a casual sci-fi fan’s attention. There is a casualness to this use of this technology that can undercut its function within the story. By stripping the fantastical elements away there is no sense of awe or wonder that allows the audience to get caught up in the “magic” of what this technology can do and keeps you rooted, bleakly rooted to Alice cold, bitter reality. The entire film comes across as sci-fi exercise in examining the post-traumatic condition of being in a state of emotional shock. Characters are in a state of tepid confusion that mollifies the seemingly extraordinary circumstances happening around them.
If you enjoy cerebral (borderline inaccessible) sci-fi like Ex Machina, Black Hollow Cage (directed by Sadrac González) will likely be of interest to you. It is currently on VoD and let us know what you thought on Twitter @Official_FAN