How exactly does one review something like Beyond the Black Rainbow,
a movie that intentionally overwhelms our senses without ever once telling us
what itís about? In times like this, I turn to that most reliable of critical
copouts, namely the annoyingly vague assessment that the film is an experience.
When I go that route, it generally means that, although I cannot begin to
interpret the visuals, the characters, or the thematic subtexts, I still
responded well to the look, the atmosphere, and the sheer audacity of the
filmmakers. Itís an experimental film, no question, but Iím forced to wonder
what genre has been experimented with. Itís not quite science fiction, not quite
a psychological thriller, not quite a horror movie, not quite a supernatural
fable; categorizing this movie is a challenge worthy of a film studentís
Its overall production design is most definitely rooted in the hard science
fiction films of the 1970s, with lots of shiny, sterile plastic and chrome
surfaces in minimalist chambers. The stark whiteness of the walls, floor, and
ceilings is often times offset by a bath of warm red light. Big square buttons
light up red and green yet are not labeled. Even the way the film sounds is
indicative of those earlier films; in between short bursts of futuristic beeps
and boops rests Jeremy Schmidtís original score, essentially a mixture of atonal
synthesizer effects with occasional melodic overtones. The editing is more in
line with the existential art house films of the late 1960s, much of the imagery
transformed into baffling yet hypnotic psychedelic dreamscapes.
The plot is the damnedest of any recent film I know of, starting out obscure
and becoming increasingly unclear of itself with the passage of each scene.
Taking place in an alternate version of the year 1983, we open with a projected
film hosted by Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands), the founder of the Arboria
Institute, which combines neuroscience with homeopathic medicine. In between
images of trees and nebulous galaxies, Arboria explains that itís all in the
name of finding a path towards happiness and inner peace. We then meet the head
of the research department, Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), who has taken great
interest in his test subject, a teenage girl named Elena (Eva Allen). She stares
blankly at the two-way mirror separating Nyle from her, not saying a word,
appearing totally empty. Nyle asks questions through a microphone in a creepy
monotone lull, his wide eyes betraying a disturbing lustful obsession.
It seems he controls her mind via a huge diamond-shaped light, which flashes
like a siren while electronic rumbles fill the air. He also occasionally drugs
her with a white vapor released directly over the diamond. He questions her
about her unseen mother, and even teases her with promises of a photograph.
Perhaps because of his experiments, or perhaps because she was simply born that
way, she has limited but deadly telekinetic powers. We never really learn the
truth of Elenaís existence, although we are shown a flashback to 1966, which is
actually less of a flashback and more of a cinematic acid trip. No amount of
written description would do it justice. I will say that we see a younger
version of Nyle receiving a droplet of fluid on his tongue, after which he
immerses himself in a pool of black goo, emerges gasping for air, advances on a
crying woman, and is suddenly holding a newborn baby.
The film intercuts between Elenaís attempts to escape the building and Nyleís
personal life. Mind you, weíre only given obscure scraps. We know that he
periodically takes blue-colored capsules and that he lives with an elderly woman
named Rosemary (Marilyn Norry), who I believe is supposed to be his mother. We
know that, physically speaking, he isnít what he initially appears to be, and of
that, I will say no more. We see him participating in an assisted suicide at one
point, and yet again, Iím really not sure what this particular scene was
supposed to represent. Elena, meanwhile, works her way through a series of
vents, shafts, and corridors, at one point nearly being overtaken by a
frightening mutant. When she finally breaks out, she wanders aimlessly through
mud-caked fields of tall grass. Unfortunately, she doesnít yet remember that
Nyle has injected a tracking device into her neck.
Where exactly does this story take place? For all I know, on another planet.
Indeed, the logic that went into making this movie is nothing if not
otherworldly. Despite the fact that its plot went completely over my head, I
most definitely have a fondness for Beyond the Black Rainbow.
Itís a triumph of craft, not so much in regards to flashy special effects but
more so along the lines of camera tricks, set design, and avant-garde approaches
to editing. First-time writer and director Panos Cosmatos is clearly in love
with the filmmaking technique and unencumbered by the constraints of
conventional narratives. He isnít telling us a story so much as immersing us in
a world of his own creation. As maddeningly abstract as the experience will
undoubtedly be for some, let it not be said that it will soon be forgotten.