REVIEW SUMMARY: A pretentious, self-indulgent, and ultimately silly first feature from director Panos Cosmatos that never captures the erratic grace or fitful elegance of early 1980s trash science fiction cinema.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: At the Arboria Institute in the early 1980s, scientist Barry Nyle performs experiments using odd metaphysical technologies on the mind of a captive young woman.
PROS: Michael Rogers, who looks precisely as a mad scientist should in a trash classic; unique attempts to give the visual and aural textures of a science fiction movie from the 1980s; odd, occasionally effective imagery, intriguing music from Jeremy Schmidt…
CONS: …all of which in the service of Cosmatos’s obtuse and uninvolving script and painfully redundant direction; set design and visual cues borrowed too heavily from other, better movies and directors; a finished product that never quite convinces it is of the period.
The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a silver age of science fiction cinema, though not necessarily on the big screen. As George Lucas mapped out the grandiose space battles of his original Star Wars trilogy and Steven Spielberg launched Henry Thomas and his alien companion against the background of a full moon on 70mm screens across the nation, as Ridley Scott relocated the haunted house tale to outer space (and proceeded to terrify audiences when John Hurt served as handmaid to a new species of sf tale) and retrofitted Los Angeles to make the future a living, breathing cityscape (one that only a handful of moviegoers observed at the time), a flood of VHS tapes from corners of the world as diverse as Canada, New Zealand, the Soviet Union, and Australia invaded suburban video stores to warp the brains of unsuspecting preteens and adolescents. Carrie Fisher as Jabba the Hut’s slave girl in Return of the Jedi might have launched a thousand teenage fantasies, but movies like Mad Max, Android, It Came Without Warning, and Scanners (which seemed to be the mainstays of the mom-and-pop video stores that sprouted like weeds in shopping centers across the United States), rewrote the imaginations of some like a Lovecraftian mindworm.
Given the cult classics that bloomed from the cathode tubes of television sets, it was only a matter of time before somebody tried to emulate these trash masterpieces, as R. W. Goodwin did for 1950s alien invasion pictures with Alien Trespass and J. J. Abrams did with 1980s Spielbergian blockbusters in Super 8. Canadian filmmaker Panos Cosmatos sees himself as the director up to the task, and gives everything he can to make Beyond the Black Rainbow look and sound like a hallucinogenic VHS movie of the period. Every shot attempts to evoke the ideological framework of David Cronenberg’s most groundbreaking work, to say nothing of pseudo auteurs as Slava Tsukeman; he also enlists the aid of musician Jeremy Schmidt to pour a Tangerine Dream–influenced synthesizer score over his surreal images.
Cosmatos obviously spent a good deal of time studying the methods and subject matter used by these media pioneers. He opens Beyond the Black Rainbow in 1983 with an advertisement for the Arboria Institute, a mysterious organization founded by Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands), stuffed full of feel-good New Age platitudes and exercises (meditation heavily among them) but filmed with an air of seamy Machiavellian menace, perfectly in keeping with not just the movies of the period, but also with the self-help ads one used to catch well after midnight on cable television: Jim Jones by way of the Reverend Moon and Timothy Leary. The Oliver Reed of David Cronenberg’s The Brood would be proud.
Unfortunately, the illusion ends at the same time as the ad. At the Institute, Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers) performs a series of odd tests on a young woman named Elena (Eva Allen), all of which appear to involve a strange glowing pyramid-shaped instrument that does…well, something. It may involve psychic powers. It may involve heights of mind control gimcrack cults can only dream of. What it does Cosmatos’s screenplay never explains. (Perhaps he considers explanation unnecessary.) Naturally, after one particularly hallucinogenic session, Elena escapes, and Dr. Nyle, who has formed a rather twisted bond with her, wants her back.
Cosmatos’s love of the period and the more artistic science fiction movie from a specific age shines through every frame of Beyond the Black Rainbow. However, it’s obvious that he loves not wisely, but too well. In using often grainy film stock and stark coloring, he tries to capture the appearance of a movie poorly transferred to videotape, but it never quite convinces. The Arboria Institute itself appears pulled from George Lucas’s THX-1138 and populated by the misshapen automatons from Gary Nelson’s The Black Hole, but never takes on its own strange identity. Occasionally he kicks things into trippy overdrive, as when Elena kills a nurse during one session, but because Cosmatos buffers his picture with so much strangeness and enigma one hardly cares. At times he seems to cram enigma into each scene in the hopes of channeling Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Andre Tarkovsky’s Stalker, yet the necessary mystery behind it is absent. It’s not only a riddle without an answer, but one without even a compelling question.
But Beyond the Black Rainbow’s subtext poses the biggest problem. The movies it affectionately imitates came after a period of disillusionment, paranoia, and cultural schizophrenia. The resulting Reagan and Thatcher years, which attempted to restore a certain level of order, only sharpened things. The best independent science fiction cinema captured with incredible power, and helped illuminate the period, even if never reached the heights of the highest brows. The second decade of the twenty-first century also has its anxieties, but they take on a different flavor, and it makes Cosmatos’s movie a chronological orphan, a simulacrum of much more compelling fare from a generation ago. Following Beyond the Black Rainbow takes us not to treasures but to the mines where treasure has long ago been dug up and divided.