Judge Steve Power is never, ever going handy to the Arboria Institute. He doesn't care how much acid they give him.
Let the new age of enlightenment begin!
"Hello, My name is Dr. Mercurio Arboria, and I am the founder of the Arboria Institute. Through our unique blend of benign pharmacology, sensory therapy, and energy sculpting; we can guide you to a new, better, happier…you."
Facts of the Case
It's 1983. A heavily sedated young girl named Elena (Eva Allan, The Big Year) has taken up residence at the Arboria Institute, a new age, pharmacological hippie commune of sorts wherein her caretaker, Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers, Continuum) tests the limits of her fragmented psyche. Escape seems to be her only recourse, but the good doctor holds a mystical grip on her mind. There are secrets within secrets, however, and the only way to learn the truth behind Dr. Nyle's own issues, and past, and Elena's apparent latent psychic abilities is to take a terrifying mental trip beyond the black rainbow.
When I first spotted trailers for Beyond the Black Rainbow, the authentic "retro sci-fi" visuals and beautiful synth score immediately caused my jaw to scrape the floor. The faint echoes of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey intermingled with a touch of The Andromeda Strain, a dash of 1984, and a cup or two of THX 1138 set my synapses alight. Not one to slight Star Wars, but I've always been more a fan of the pre-blockbuster, post-pulp sci-fi that was on the rise when Lucas' little trilogy came along and re-invented the wheel. This gave me some pretty lofty expectations for Panoz Cosmatos' debut film going in. The fact that the two-minute trailer was amazingly well cut didn't help matters. Either this could have been a real gem of a film, a brilliant exercise in the surreal, or a total train wreck. Things aren't so simple here, and the truth definitely lies somewhere in between.
You don't watch a film like this for plot, which is definitely a good thing, as Beyond the Black Rainbow definitely relies more heavily on its striking imagery and simple metaphor than nuanced writing or meaningful dialogue. Everything unfolds slowly, meditatively, at times unnervingly silently, punctuated by staccato rhythms. Other times we get cathartic, otherworldly visuals and out and out cosmic trips for the eyeballs. This, much like the films it emulates, is a film that will present greater rewards to those who invest more heavily; it isn't for weak wills, weak stomachs, or weak minds. Those of us who've been interpreting Kubrick or Lynch for years may find it to be somewhat less than the sum of its trippy visuals, but there's definitely enough here to fire some discussion. I fully expect it to be a pretty divisive film, though there are more than a few surprises in store.
There's a lot working in favor of Beyond the Black Rainbow not the least of which is our lead performances. Michael Rogers is really the centerpiece here, and his Dr. Nyle is one downright chilling character. Rogers amps the creep factor to 11 or 12, always unnerving, like a ticking time bomb without a handy LCD display to inform us as to how much time is left before he goes off. His brutal manipulation of Elena, even the way he studies the girl, as though full of equal parts unmitigated contempt and unbridled lust, is disturbing as hell. Simple scenes, like Nyle staring into a mirror as he systematically swallows pills with machine like precision, or even interactions with his live in…wife? Mother? Are just filled to the brim with dread. Every scene Nyle appears in has this overriding sense of impending unpleasantness, until the final act kicks in. Eva Allen is also given a lot of unpleasantness to deal with, as the sedated, victimized, terrified Elena. She handles it admirably. She too, has this sense of impending doom, like a kettle ready to boil over at a moments notice, but in an entirely different fashion. Both performers are really giving their all, and they turn in some great work.
The other star of the show is the beautiful production design. Beyond the Black Rainbow is a stunning looking film, there's really no other word for it. Sets are all practical, wonderfully realized portrayals of the dark future of 1983 as it could have been envisioned in the late '60s or early '70s. When things do get spacey, we get some amazing looking practical effects, and some great looking filters; a flashback scene is filmed entirely in high contrast black and white, with white blooms crushing most of the darkness from the image, and it looks absolutely fantastic. Whatever someone may feel about the film's bound-to-be-divisive plotting, the look and design is truly world class stuff, and worthy of comparison to the visual masterpieces that came before. Even if things may fall short from a narrative stand point.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Things DO fall kind of short as Beyond the Black Rainbow enters the final act. While I wouldn't say that it's all buildup with no payoff, I will say that after two thirds of the film is just so abstract, surreal, and outright freaky, things do take a rather surprising turn for the decidedly pedestrian. I don't want to give away plot points, suffice it to say that the film changes its high-Kubrick gear into Low-Cronenberg for the final bits, hearkening more to Cronenberg's gritty earlier efforts than the surreal sci-fi trip of the preceding 60-70 minutes. It's great that the film ties things up in satisfactory fashion, but it really does feel like a different movie entirely. I'd have preferred something with a little more ambiguity, and leaving the confines of the Arboria Institute was definitely a poor choice considering the world beyond the walls didn't match the kooky insanity of what was within. None of this completely ruined the film for me, but it definitely knocked my appreciation down a step or three.
Magnolia has done a great job with the disc from a technical standpoint; it looks and sounds great, near perfect even. The extra features however, are a different story. A commentary would have been great, I'd have loved to hear Panoz's thoughts on the film, and why he went the route he did for the final bit, but all we get is a look at a deleted effect scene, and the well cut trailer. Pretty weak.
Beyond the Black Rainbow may come apart some in the final moments, but what comes before is an effective homage to the brain bending trips of Kubrick, Lynch, Cronenberg, or Burroughs at their finest. Stark and striking, fiercely inventive, and stunningly visualized. It's Stanley Kubrick's eye filtered through his own surrealistic nightmares, and a brilliant snapshot of sci-fi filmmaking pre-Star Wars. It's a difficult film to recommend to everyone, but those with a penchant for unhinged cinema and striking visuals should be happy. Magnolia's disc is light on extras, but looks and sounds fantastic.
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