Set in the strange and oppressive emotional landscape of the year 1983, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a Reagan-era fever dream inspired by hazy childhood memories of midnight movies and Saturday morning cartoons.
From the producer of Machotaildrop, Rainbow is the outlandish feature film debut of writer and director Panos Cosmatos. Featuring a hypnotic analog synthesizer score by Jeremy Schmidt of “Sinoia Caves” and “Black Mountain,” Rainbow is a film experience for the senses.
eyelights: its mysterious atmosphere. its eerie music. its set designs. its lighting.
eyesores: Michael Rogers’ mumbling. its uneven third act.
“Let the new age of enlightenment begin!”
They don’t make them like they used to. In the late-’60s and ’70s, visionary science fiction films such as ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘, ‘THX 1138‘, ‘The Andromeda Strain‘ and ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture‘ gave audiences a unique kind of sci-fi, deeply rooted in cultured aesthetics, atmospheres and themes.
But they were a breed apart. Prior to the existentialist musings that pervaded North American culture at the time, science fiction television and cinema was frequently given short shrift by filmmakers: they had low-to-no budget, crap scripts, non-actors, poor productions and risible special effects.
By the end of the ’70s, science fiction had been altered by two things: the glossy blockbuster (ex: ‘Star Wars‘) and gritty dystopia (ex: ‘Alien‘). One created a breed of (often-makeshift) spectacles and the other of gloomier, more violent fare; cerebral types of science fiction films became rarer.
‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ makes a bold attempt to evoke this type of cinema: though it’s set in the early ’80s, the 2010 low-budget Canadian picture drips with a ’70s aesthetic quality that curiously marries Kubrick with Carpenter. It’s an ode to some of the defining filmmakers of that generation.
It takes us deep into the heart of Arboria Institute, a research facility set up in the ’60s by Dr. Arboria with the promise of leading humanity to next level of evolution. Set in 1983, we find the eerie Dr. Nyle interacting with his subject, Elena, a young woman with psychic abilities that are just developing.
The picture is mostly character-driven: The first act sets the stage and introduces the characters and the second delves into their psyches. The third act, however, changes gears completely to serve up a slightly more visceral thriller, as a confrontation between Dr. Nyle and Elena becomes inevitable.
‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ is the filmmaking debut of Panos Cosmatos, whose father, George P. Cosmatos, made a splash in Hollywood with a couple of Sylvester Stallone actioners as well as ‘Tombstone’. Panos took inspiration from the horror section of a local video store, films he couldn’t rent back in 1984.
The strengths of his picture are its mood and its artistic qualities. It’s one of those motion pictures that probably should have been experienced on the big screen, if only because you want to immerse yourself in it. Though it’s set on Earth, it feels otherworldy, like you’re visiting some sort of alternate reality.
The Arboria Institute, for instance, is a stereochromatic (!) space with blank rooms and glass-lined corridors. When Dr. Niles meets with Elena, he’s in a red space while she’s in a white space. It’s all monitored by sentinauts, Daft Punk-type robots that activate whenever there’s a security breach.
The place is so cold, clinical, scientific, strange. And it’s nicely enhanced by Panos’ slow fade in/out, pans, and dolly shots.
The music contributes quite a lot of character to the piece. Composed by Jeremy Schmidt (from Canadian psychedelic rock band Black Mountain) under the guise of Sinoia Caves, the droning electronic score evokes the best of John Carpenter, including Ennio Morricone’s genius music to ‘The Thing‘.
Together, the visuals and soundscapes make for quite a potent combination, one that few could forget – though admittedly not everyone would be quick to appreciate it. Ultimately, ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ offers a fairly eerie, if not sinister vibe; one doesn’t really know what’s going on, but it’s not good.
Despite Dr. Arboria’s original intentions.
One of the most memorable scenes is the opening sequence, which finds someone popping a VHS tape of a promotional video by the Arboria Institute. Framed in 4:3 and backed by new agey music, it shows Dr. Arboria discussing the Institute’s goals, promising his audience “a new, better, happier you”.
And yet something doesn’t feel quite right.
It leads us to our first exploration of the Institute, after the opening credits and a few John Carpenter-like pulsations, which shows us a catatonic girl, a glowing pyramid and lit panels. It all has an unmistakable ’80s quality, but it doesn’t explain itself one bit: we’re left to try to make sense of it all somehow.
But we can’t.
The next most memorable part is a flashback to 1966, to the first Arboria experiments, in which Dr. Nigel ingests a liquid and then immerses himself in black goo. We are then exposed to surrealist images of faces, smoke, liquids, colours. It’s all very dark, trippy, yet gorgeous. And all so mysterious.
My only real problems are the performance by Michael Rogers, as Dr. Nigel, who is stuffy in a faux-Christian Bale way that made me wish for the real thing, the nurse’s discovery of Nigel’s notes, and the finale, which devolved into a dubious slasher film-type confrontation that was neither exciting nor satisfying.
Otherwise, I was quite taken with ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’. I like that it takes it sweet time, doesn’t spoon-feed its audience and immerses itself in its influences. In so doing, it’s created a cinematic experience like few others. Fans of ‘Ex Machina‘ and ‘Under the Skin‘ will no doubt appreciate its lo-fi sci-fi.
Though it’s not fully coherent, people who love cerebral ’70s sci-fi will likely get the most out of it.
They really don’t make them like that anymore.
Date of viewing: February 8, 2017