The Spanish produced, but English language sci-fi-slash-home-invasion-thriller Black Hollow Cage strives to be austere and thoughtful, but instead ends up cold, distant, and borderline incoherent. Incorporating a fair number of future-forward elements into his story, Spanish writer-director Sadrac González-Perellón initially makes it seem like his tale of a father and daughter in mortal peril at their woodland home will be some sort of elaborate, heady search for answers. Despite some intriguing elements and a decent twist at the halfway point, Black Hollow Cage overall turns out to be a film more focused on looking cool and thoughtful instead of actually being intelligent or engaging. It’s a film where the biggest twist isn’t what’s going to happen, but the sudden realization that you’re just watching a film where things are happening for the sake of it because there wouldn’t be a film without individual scenes strung together in some sort of order.
It all starts off from an intriguing point. 13-year old Alice (Lowena McDonnell) lives in a unique, state of the art mansion in the middle of the woods that could best be described as “industrial modernist.” There are plenty of windows despite the home essentially being embedded into a plateau of some sort, every wall is coloured to look like it’s made from rusted metal, Pollock-esque paintings hang prominently in the background, the illogical placement of what I can only describe as an “infinity bathtub,” and narrow hallways lined with random floor to ceiling cabinets lead to cavernous open concept spaces. It’s an intriguing place to look at, and the perfect location to shoot a thriller; something that Perellón constantly reminds the viewer in every frame.
Alice lives with her father, Adam (Julian Nicholson), with whom she has a frosty relationship. Alice blames Adam for the death of her mother, who through the wonders of technology (that’s not very well explained) can speak to her daughter through a voicebox placed on the family dog (voiced by Lucy Tillett), making Black Hollow Cage the most straight-faced and severe film I’ve ever seen to feature a talking dog. The accident that claimed the life of her mother also led to Alice need a robotic prosthetic right arm, a quirk that one thinks will go somewhere, but ultimately adds very little of interest.
One day while roaming the woods, Alice comes across a giant, morphing metal box that opens up to give the young woman a slip of paper with a message on it. The note reads “They are not to be trusted” and appears to have been written in her own handwriting. The “they” in the note turns out to be Erika (Haydée Lysander) and her mute brother Paul (Marc Puiggener), a pair of young people who show up at Adam and Alice’s doorstep, severely beaten – so they say – by Erika’s boyfriend, David (Will Hudson). Immediately suspicious and already untrusting towards her own father, Alice returns to the cube for further instructions, and what she’s told to do next sets off a catastrophic, world altering course of events.
It’s a decent enough idea for a film, and in terms of a cinematic style, Perellón wants to dutifully emulate the feeling of Spanish thrillers from the not so distant heyday of the 90s and early 2000s, but outside of finding a great place to shoot, Black Hollow Cage forgets to do anything else of interest and bores without even managing to be consistently dull. Although the plot turn that occurs around the forty minute mark will quicken the pulse briefly, it’s all undone by metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that will just see the same scene getting played out over and over again. The more you see it, the less effective it becomes regardless of how Alice’s actions in the scene vary.
Perellón’s script establishes a firm sense of when everything takes place and a vague idea of how all this is happening, but it forgets to ask who these characters really are beyond portraying them as chess pieces in a story, what the ultimate goal for any of these people are (and a poorly explained reason during the climax doesn’t cut it), and most importantly, why the viewer should care that any of this is happening.
Black Hollow Cage is so rigidly focused on seeming metaphysical, dreamlike, and uniquely opulent that it can’t create a consistent framework for the story or characters. That could be the point, but it’s as much fun to watch as listening to a co-worker babble about their weird dream from the other night is to hear. Absolutely nothing sticks, and by the time the third act hits, it’s hard to care because Perellón has already mounted so many left field twists that the viewer knows he’s just going to keep adding more, and that this will all be ultimately meaningless.
Perellón’s way with actors is calculated and distant, basically treating them like another aspect of the film’s production design. It’s somewhat understandable because contemplating the architecture of Alice’s home is far more engaging than deciphering the story. It leads to inconsistent performances that don’t help matters much. McDonnell is too dead eyed and limp to elicit any sympathy and warmth for her family’s plight. Nicholson is fine until he has to show extreme emotions, and then he becomes unreasonably hammy. Lysander flaunts her character’s sexuality throughout the film’s repressed, unspoken erotic subplot with Adam, but she seems to inhabit a much more interesting film than the one we’re watching. And while Hudson only has one major scene, it’s a pivotal one that he can’t hope to save because of poor writing and worse execution. It’s like watching a group of erratically programmed robots trying desperately not to fail a Turing Test, and that can only be the fault of the director and writer.
Black Hollow Cage starts monotonous, turns ridiculous, and never manages to be entertaining or smart. Brainy, austere sci-fi can be done to great effect, provided that it’s told with a sense of humanity and keen storytelling acumen. It can’t be told through a mish-mash of cool looking camera angles and uninteresting, inexplicable plot devices. Not everything in a sci-fi film needs to be explained, but there has to be some sort of emotional or artistic reason to care. Black Hollow Cage fails on both counts.
Black Hollow Cage opens at Carlton Cinemas on Friday, February 16, 2018. It arrives on VOD on February 20.
Check out the trailer for Black Hollow Cage: