I’ve got a friend who hates Piet Mondrian. He thinks the guy was a hack and that his work was empty and pretentious, and I understand that. Mondrian’s art isn’t for everyone and even people who appreciate paintings like “Composition with Yellow” don’t necessarily engage with those works every time they see one hanging on a wall.
Beyond the Black Rainbow, the debut feature film from Panos Cosmatos is like that, too. It’s willfully obtuse, impressionistic, slow, and abstract and it asks the audience to give in to a specific kind of experience. A lot of people aren’t going to be willing to comply with that request, and I would bet that Cosmatos is perfectly at peace with that. I heard and read many complaints about the film after it screened twice at Fantastic Fest: it’s boring, pretentious, inscrutable, and empty; it’s a directorial wank; there isn’t enough story there to fill up a short, much less a feature, and so on. I understand those reactions, I really do—but I don’t agree with them.
Some festival patron mentioned that the script for Beyond the Black Rainbow was only 11 pages long and he made that sound like some kind of indictment of the lack of content or story that makes up the film’s 110 minute running time. I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems at least feasible that the whole thing wouldn’t take too many pages to describe. What’s misleading in that though is the fact that Beyond the Black Rainbow is a purely cinematic experience—a story that needs the medium in which it exists if it is to have any chance to work.
It’s a story told through moving images, sounds, music, impressions, and the lingering feeling when one light source fades into another. You could write all of that down, but it still wouldn’t be the experience of this film. In fact, there’s quite a lot going on in the film’s margins and outside of the scant lines of spoken dialogue, but it takes some effort to find the story if you aren’t locked into the film in the way that Cosmatos requires.
The prevailing description of the film holds that it takes place in a futuristic version of 1983 where an evil scientist is holding a girl with some kind of powers captive in a sterile facility from which she must escape. I suppose that’s good enough as a tweet for the setup, but the plot is considerably more nuanced than that. My breakdown of what I think is going on in the film appears at the end of this, but I’d recommend that if you have any intention of seeing Beyond the Black Rainbow, you hold off on that part until you’ve had a chance to piece the story together for yourself. Suffice it to say that I found the antagonist’s (Dr. Nyle) back story and character arc more complex than I was expecting given his creepy, stoic demeanor in the first 2/3rds of the film. After nearly an hour and a half of Nyle playing the nefarious creep, there was a moment in the film where I felt genuine empathy for him and the film’s best mindfuck was what happened right after that! Strangely, the girl who should be the film’s hero is one of its least rounded characters, but I suppose that being pent up in a crazy new age laboratory for a lifetime can do that to a person.
I wouldn’t call the film’s setting futuristic as much as highly stylized and indebted to the kind of neon-soaked futurism that was prevalent in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Jordan Hoffman at UGO mentioned Omni Magazine in reference to the film’s look and that’s a great visual shortcut. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cosmatos is a big fan of the work that v23 did for early 4AD album covers either, as several scenes (including one particularly trippy out-of-body experience) looked like old Cocteau Twins’ album covers coming to life.
Cosmatos takes special care to depict the world inside his characters’ heads and inside the laboratory space as otherworldly, sterile, and alien, while any glimpses outside of that space look like normal old 1983. Reviews that I’ve seen tend to point out the same short list of movies to which Black Rainbow can be compared, but the only one of those that I’ll mention is THX 1138 since Cosmatos felt the need to throw in a wink to it in a bit of computer dialogue.
In fact, while this film owes a lot to THX and a handful of other sci fi classics, the movie it reminded me of the most was 2009’s Valhalla Rising—another brooding and atmospheric film that told a story in impressions and tones rather than densely-scripted scenes. Valhalla Rising seems to have split audiences too, and while I found both films effecting and moving, neither left me in a state of mind that I wanted to revisit too soon.
I love the fact that Beyond the Black Rainbow asks a simple and profound question from an incredibly cynical point of view. It’s not worried about the answer to the question “Can we venture out into the beyond?” but rather “What happens when we do?” While Dave Bowman’s trip Beyond the Infinite resulted in a rebirth, Dr. Nyle’s trip Beyond the Black Rainbow leaves him scarred and irrevokably messed up.
Nyle is more than a creepy villain, though he is certainly that. In a way, he’s a tragic victim of his own quest for enlightenment. Once he breaks past the Black Rainbow (which he describes in a chilling scene) life amongst normal people must seem so mundane, and life inside the institute isn’t fulfilling. Nevertheless, he’s trapped in our world while trying to piece together what he’s seen beyond it. We’ve seen this character before—Sam Neill’s character from Event Horizon; the doctor who stared at the sun for too long in Sunshine, Max from Pi, even Icarus. Nyle successfully reaches beyond the human mind, but he pays the price in the form of a madness that he must control through “appliances” and a steady drug regemine.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is crammed full of some of the most beautifully grotesque images I’ve seen in a film in recent years. Characters often appear dreamlike and out of focus until they drift so uncomfortably close to the camera that I want to back away from the screen. The camera lingers on details, textures, and faces that don’t change much and this languid pace can be confounding if you are looking for the action that moves the story forward. But in fact, the story is always moving forward and the tricks that Cosmatos plays with light, negative space, time, focus, and abstract images are meant to work like the almost imperceptible wisps of air that keep the puck afloat on an air hockey table. If you allow yourself to be caught up in that flow, then the movie pulls you along as if you too were trapped in the film’s dreadful world.
What Cosmatos does with his immersive atmosphere, and what he asks of the audience who are along for the ride, parallels what the characters go through in the film. Working for or living at the institute is not without its price, and in fact it turns out badly for just about everyone, but the institute’s promise is one of a transcendent evolutionary state. I don’t mean to suggest that if you are willing to buy into the film that you will have a religious cinematic experience, but certainly there’s a point in the film where it becomes clear that the journey of its characters is not unlike the journey of its audience. You can choose to dip your head in the primordial goo and let whatever madness its author has created work, or you can back away and simply try to endure until the end. With those options, the question becomes this: do you trust the author?
I suspect that Beyond the Black Rainbow will become a gateway movie for a new generation of kids looking for trippy and twisted cinematic experiences. It’s bound to be someone’s Eraserhead. I find it hard to say whether or not I actually liked the movie, but I know that it got under my skin. Sometimes we need movies that do that more than we need movies that simply entertain.
My Take On The Story (SPOILERS)
In the 1960’s a group of scientists led by Dr. Arboria create an Institute and they begin using a host of New Age methods for personal growth and self-actualization in an effort to evolve the human species. They work with crystal energy tuning, smart drugs, brain stimulation, sensory depravation, and probably a host of other techniques to break the human mind out of its natural confines. The institute is housed in a self-sustaining dome that cuts its inhabitants off from the remainder of the world. A few people work there and go home to a normal life every night, but what goes on deep in the recesses of the facility is hidden (for good reason.)
During an experiment in 1966, Dr. Arboria’s protégé, Dr. Nyle, subjects himself to a mind-bending process where he transcends consciousness and effectively stares into the eye of God. When Nyle emerges from a primordial goo, his mind is more than bent—it’s been cracked wide open and he immediately kills Arboria’s wife. Seeing this incident as a mere side-effect of his partner’s newly expanded consciousness, Arboria isn’t all that upset at the loss, and instead shifts his focus to his infant daughter who has been born in the institute and for whom he has tremendous aspirations. The film doesn’t make clear when and how the daughter was born, but I suspect it was after Arboria and his wife had already experimented on themselves—leaving the young girl with some latent “talents.”
Through the years, Arboria and Nyle attempt a number of experiments to evolve the human mind but they are largely unsuccessful, resulting in creepy, mindless beings who live trapped in rooms or who get put to use in various capacities in the institute. As time passes, Dr. Arboria descends into a pattern of drug use and zombie-like Television-watching, confined to a dark room in the institute. His journey to enlightenment has obviously been unsuccessful. This leaves Dr. Nyle to watch over the girl, a task he completes with no measure of warmth. Arboria’s daughter grows up in nearly complete isolation, treated more like the subject of an experiment than a person. She also develops some type of telepathic power that allows her to communicate with and control others with her mind. Hoping that her power can be harnessed or at least aware that it needs to be contained, Nyle creates control mechanisms to keep her docile and sedated.
When the film catches up with Nyle, his wife, Arboria, and the girl, Nyle’s cracked mind has had about all it can take. Arboria is rotting away, no longer helping to advance their cause, Nyle’s wife sits at home in a daze, unable to relate to a man who has experienced something beyond human comprehension, and the girl that Nyle is forced to watch over quietly outshines them all while gently resisting her keepers. When Nyle decides to give the girl a picture of her mother, his control scheme starts to unravel. He’s a smart and calculating guy—he must know that this will happen, and thus his plan to free himself and give in to his id is set in motion.