A critic should be honest about their biases. Considering this, a preface: Beyond the Black Rainbow is conventionally described, at least insofar as a film this atypical can be conventionally described, as a modern recollection of the grainy, quizzical, hard science fiction storytelling so popular in 1970s US culture, doused with a thin membrane of stilted, personality-heavy American animation forever struggling to find out what it meant to aim for an audience of both children and adults. Considering this, it would have been almost impossible for me to dislike the film going on. As it turns out, I do not dislike it. Take from that what you will.
Written and directed by Panos Cosmatos, Beyond the Black Rainbow is the story of Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), the Head of Research at the New Age Arboria Institute, and Elena (Eva Allen), daughter of the founder of the Arboria Institute. Elena is withdrawn to isolation, forced into seemingly unwitting scientific experiments designed for the obtuse purposes of reconciling the forever dueling scapegoats of science and religion. Her parents seem disinterested in her plight, but she has since gained a vague collection of psychic powers to control and transform others around her, powers which she sees fit to enlist in her approximation of an escape. Thus, a story is born, but story seems woefully misleading and underdeveloped for Cosmatos’ concoction.
Which brings us to our next point: the most notable thing about Beyond the Black Rainbow is how gosh-darned European it is. Although it boasts an undeniable connection to the likes of Lucas’ THX 1138 and the endless chain of low-budget speculative science fiction so popular in America until the dawn of the festering 1980s , it’s important to remember that ’70s American sci-fi was the most European an American genre has ever approached. The obvious analogue is Kubrick’s methodical, insidious 2001: A Space Odyssey, but then Kubrick was the most European director ever spawned on American soil. Tarkovsky is a prime influence, with Solaris’ enigmatic deconstruction of the human species and intuitive, warmly cool color-coded emotional sensibility residing deep within the movie’s esoteric bones (whether or not it ever burrows to the core of those bones, and whether or not its clinical drive gets in the way, is another question).
At the same time, the tone is less expressive, and less oppressively calculating, than anything ever directed by Kubrick or Karkovsky, instead taking up tenancy in John Carpenter’s wheelhouse and the string of fatalistic late ’70s/ early ’80s media forms influenced by his prismatic yet highly specialized lens. Acid horror (Heavy Metal is a prime influence as well) enters the fray, along with the modernist aural art of the monstrously monotonous, sinister synths of Tangerine Dream (or their successors Daft Punk) known as well to the malevolence of Carpenter and the cool, ethereal mist of early ’80s Michael Mann. It s a deeply genre-fried film, perhaps a bit too much so, and it is detached and alien as sci-fi but so committed to its hard sci-fi exterior to ever approach the poetic drama of a Tarkovsky. The famed Soviet director was able to push analytic filmmaking so far it doubled-back and became an emotional sensibility in itself; Cosmatos is a bit too tepidly clinical to get there. He seems too committed to genre exteriors to ever push beyond the limits of his genre of choice, something Tarkovsky and Kubrick were able to achieve with relative ease.
Still, as an aesthetic exercise the film is hard to deny. Cosmatos applies his own peculiar, singular brand of crisp, oppressive had lighting and moody, mournful blue malaise to every cut and bruise to sure up the cracks of an almost non-existent narrative. The second half in particular is so wonderfully sensuous and even sensual its hard to overlook. When the muted crimsons and oranges and the plonking, electronic bass notes that go on for ever suggest a certain passion ready to break out onto the screen, but a passion forever sublimated to the demands of the oppressive community the characters live in, the film is almost impossible to look away from. There are a multitude of different styles on display, yet they clear the cohesiveness test: everything, from the most obvious color-change to the slightest framing device, feels homogenized into a singular unit. The whole thing serves the creation of a world as antediluvian as it is a bullet into the future, as workable winding into the void of caustic, empty white as unleashing a blood-red cacophony on screen.
However, as lovely as everything about the film’s style is (especially during its periodic late-night drifts into outright horror), there is an overwhelming sense, which the film never quite breaks, that it is all for naught, that its style is a just a touch too narcissistic and exists purely for itself. This is the second test of a highly stylized film, beyond the cohesiveness: the why? Why have the style at all? Here the film is less certain, although not for lack of trying. A number of films blow this test to bits simply by finding mischievous-ness, the sense of not having a reason and always searching for more to subvert, as their primary purpose. This is not Beyond the Black Rainbow though, nor was it the case for most of what this film emulates; there is a definite and specific sense of logic and intent on display here, not a sense of destroying logic and replacing it with anarchy. This is a highly ordered, semantic film, a work where everything is specific and purposeful and utilitarian and pointed, and intended for a streamlined purpose.
As for that purpose, I’m not yet sure the finished work earns its claim. There’s a lot going on, too much, and it often seems obtuse less for the punctilious sickle of abstracted beauty than the undiscerning broad-sword of intellectual difficulty for the sake of difficulty. If you want to throw all of your cards into one basket it had better be a gorgeous, heavily ornamented basic, and a work where the beatific splendor is one with the raw quilt work of the storytelling mechanics. Black Rainbow has the ornaments down pat, but there’s a nagging suspicion that they are purely surface-level, that there is nothing to unearth deep in the film’s bowels. The color-work often seems less successfully emotion-coded than aloof and arbitrary, less judicious than a ramshackle cover-up hiding a hollow interior (and at the same time, it seems almost too studied to ever breath freely or energetically).
There isn’t necessarily nothing here, but Cosmatos seems a more skilled conceptual artist than a craftsman, letting his vision get the better of him in the face of an actual commitment to theme or character. A small dose of detached intellectualism works its magic mightily, but he throws down a honking slab of it unadorned. It’s easier to appreciate what he is attempting than to actually be affected on any primal or spiritual level by the look and feel of the film, which often approaches pastiche of other, better works. It achieves the rare feat of seeming both overly-composed and too carefully planned to lack spontaneity and buoyancy, and too free-lance and loose to ever work as the methodical, malevolent mood piece it’s truly aiming for. It’s a valiant first effort, but it’s both over-extended and under-developed.
Still, there’s so much that is good, and even great, about Beyond the Black Rainbow that it’s hard to undermine conclusively. Cosmatos is clearly a talent, and a luminously singular one at that, and his future works deserve anticipation and excitement, if of a slightly more-cautious-than-hoped variety. This is radical filmmaking, but its workmanlike radicalism; what you will make of it shall be determined more based on which of those two descriptors matters more to you than anything else.