How exactly does one review something like Beyond the Black Rainbow, a movie that intentionally overwhelms our senses without ever once telling us what it’s 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. It’s an experimental film, no question, but I’m forced to wonder what genre has been experimented with. It’s 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 student’s graduate thesis.
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 Schmidt’s 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 it’s 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 Elena’s 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 Elena’s attempts to escape the building and Nyle’s personal life. Mind you, we’re 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 isn’t 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, I’m 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 doesn’t 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. It’s 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 isn’t 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.