Black Hollow Cage, from Spanish director Sadrac Gonzalez, hits a lot of the right notes for me. I’m an easy sell for simple sci-fi premises, especially when they involve time travel. Black Hollow Cage, in which a young girl discovers she can send messages back in time via a mysterious device found in the woods, is right up my alley. So I’m a little disappointed to find that while the film does many things right, it doesn’t quite hit the same mark as something like Timecrimes, Primer, or Coherence.
The story follows a young girl, Alice, and her father, Adam. The two live alone (with the exception of their dog, who we’ll get to in a moment), in a vaguely futuristic home out in the woods. The film opens with a doctor making a house-call to fit Alice with a prosthetic limb to replace her arm, missing from the elbow down. The prosthetic is high-tech, a robotic hand with full articulation, that she must learn to use. The doctor is sure to remind her that the process will be difficult, and will require patience. Her father tries to reassure her, and immediately we see strain between the two. More than ordinary childhood angst, she clearly has a deep resentment for her father, for reasons not immediately apparent.
Our first hint comes in the form of Alice’s dog, which she refers to as “Mom.” The dog has a special collar with a speaker, which seems to allow the dog to speak, in a synthesized human voice. I love this. There is a scene in which Alice introduces the family, pointing to Adam as she says “This is my father,” and to the dog as she says “And my mother,” with an utterly casual, matter-of-fact tone, and I swooned a bit. The confident way in which the narrative introduces these sci-fi concepts is an immense point in its favor. Plus, talking dog.
While exploring the woods, Alice stumbles across a strange device: a large, black cube, unattended in a clearing in the forest. Upon inspection, she finds that the cube is mechanical in nature, with moving parts opening up to reveal a hidden compartment, in which a note has been left: “THEY ARE NOT TO BE TRUSTED.” Seeing something familiar in the note, she sets out to copy it, finding that it matches her own handwriting. This discovery coincides with the arrival of two mysterious guests. Erika, having been savagely beaten by her boyfriend, is looking for a safe place to recover, along with her younger brother, Paul.
Tension mounts, as Alice’s father seems to develop feelings for Erika. Alice resents her father having feelings for a woman other than her mother. She blames her father for her mother being gone. Adam is doing the best he can, but is clearly dealing with issues of his own. And all the while, Alice’s distrust of the guests grows, as the messages from her future self increase in severity.
On paper, I realize, this is all very solid. I love this premise. A young girl receiving alarming, cryptic messages from her future self. The decision to keep the emotional drama and tension between father and daughter at the forefront of the story, with the time travel almost immediately accepted by Alice as a given. A talking dog-mom. All of these elements are there, but there is something in the presentation that leaves me wanting.
The film feels slightly weaker than its premise. The time travel never gets particularly cerebral, which is fine, because Black Hollow Cage is mostly a film about grief. But the characters never feel quite human enough for their grief to be relatable. Perhaps in its decision to obfuscate details for the sake of later reveals, the narrative keeps every character’s story at arm’s reach. They end up feeling hollow. Alice is angry, sure. Adam is sorrowful. Erika and Paul are not to be trusted. But by the time the film feels comfortable letting its guard down and exploring any of the why behind these things, we’ve already spent too much time with an empty cast. There’s not enough to hold onto. A series of great ideas, themes that are sorrowful and lovely, and some genuinely fantastic moments, but not enough in between these things to make you care about them.