Thursday, January 7, 2016

Beyond the Black Rainbow

  For my first review of 2016, I fully intended to do a write-up on Aliens, my favorite movie of (pretty much) all time. Yet, I've written about that movie already, several times. No matter what I had to say about it, it would be nothing I haven't said before. Thus, I decided to review a different movie altogether; Beyond the Black Rainbow. Now, I have seen this movie once or twice back in 2011. I was immediately drawn to it's early 80's visual aesthetic and it's strange sci-fi content. Yet I was also put off by it's lack of story, it's glacial pace, and a very empty feeling overall. In retrospect, I don't think those are flaws. I think they contribute to an eerie atmosphere that makes Beyond the Black Rainbow a very interesting watch.

   At the same time, the movie is not casual viewing. It has the pace of 2001: A Space Odyssey and only half as much going on. Having said that, what is going on is just as interesting. The movie revolves around a young woman named Elena who seems to be kept against her will in a strange experimental research facility called the Arboria institute. It also seems to have a very public front to it as well, as a place you can go to 'find your inner-self' and 'true happiness'. Very hippie-ish stuff. Elena is tormented by one Dr. Barry Nyle, the main antagonist for the film. He immediately reminded me of David Warner, and that's no small praise.

   Actor Michael Rogers infuses a sinister perverseness into his role as Dr. Nyle. For the majority of the film, Nyle is shown doing little more than conducting passive aggressive interview sessions with Elena, exerting his control over her, walking down hi-tech corridors in slow motion and generally being creepy. It's amazing how quickly you can despise this guy, given that he does so little, and we know next to nothing about him. Of course it helps that Elena, played by Eva Bourne, is such a sympathetic character- which is conveyed almost entirely through visuals. She has only one line in the entire movie, so she really has to sell her performance with nothing but her expressions and body language. She pulls it off really well, to say the least.

   The rest of the cast of where there are only... like... four others, barely get any screentime at all and for the most part aren't worth singling out, but I couldn't discern any bad acting. Anyways, the movie is basically just a big power struggle between Elena and Nyle. With that context, it's much easier to get into it, so to speak. The movie seems to focus more on Dr.Nyle than it does on Elena though, which isn't a bad thing- because Nyle is creepy in ways you don't even expect. He has some weird stuff in his backstory which in turn sheds a tiny bit of light on Elena's history. Yet, the movie isn't about story or plot, it's about moods, associations and feelings.

   The director, Panos Cosmatos, wears his inspirations on his sleeve and it shows in the best possible way. But, more than that, he was aiming for a very specific vibe for this movie. According to him, he wanted "to create a film that is a sort of imagining of an old film that doesn’t exist." And, he succeeds. This movie is easily remembered in fragments. When you think about it, it's the stunning imagery, devoid of context that sticks in your head. Lava lampesque melting heads, a weird automaton in sleek futuristic bodysuit, ominous black cloud waves of doom rolling over a psychadellic landscape, a pool of tar-like black goo, shiny corridors of glassy plastic and light. These are the images the movie imparts with a unique artistic vision, a trance-like hypnotic vibe, and a grainy retro feel.

   It's not concerned with dialog or a constant stream of weird visuals. It has a handful of standout scenes that punctuate the movie, but  for the most part it feels like a long, somber, and weird dream, or maybe a half-forgotten memory. Things make sense in the moment because they don't need to be explained. Consider a sequence in which Elena is trying to escape from the facility. She finds herself in a small tunnel, and there's a zombie-like creature in there, in a straight jacket. Left there like someone forgot it. There's no explanation for why it's there, but we don't really need one either. It's just one more obstacle for Elena to survive and one more surreal scene in a movie that's completely dreamlike from start to finish.

  Visually, the movie is alive with color, and makes fantastic use of it's somewhat limited color palate.  Almost every scene has a slightly blue hue to it, but contrasted with blazing reds or stunning whites. Every so often, one of those weird scenes comes in and things just explode with color in the strange visuals. On the flip side, in a particularly stunning flashback sequence, the movie actually ditches the color altogether in favor of a aging, brightly contrasted, black and white look not unlike the movie Begotten, a cult flick popularized as a midnight movie- which is favored by a crowd that would devour Beyond the Black Rainbow.

   It fits right in with that kind of sub-genre. In fact, this seems like it was pretty much by design. It's visual inspirations are very clearly laid out. Movies like Suspiria, THX 1138, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark Star, and the aforementioned Begotten. are just a handful of the ones that seem to have directly inspired the visual language of Beyond the Black Rainbow.

  On top of stunning visuals and eye catching cinematography, the sounds of this movie are just as trance-like and stimulating. The music is fantastic and haunting, all while sounding very 80's and synthesized. However, even beyond the music, there's all kinds of creepy and eerie sounds perfectly married to the visuals- whether it's the clean lines and sterile look of the Arboria institute, or the trippy psychedelic ickiness in some of it's more out-there scenes, the sound design is impressive. Technically speaking, the movie is fantastic. There aren't many like it out there.

  Yet, this obviously isn't a movie for everyone. It's very slow, and sparse. It's intentionally set up that way to evoke very specific moods and feelings in it's audience. Yet some people won't want to go there with it. It was never destined for mainstream commercial success and it can easily lose the attention of the wrong audience. But, like a lava lamp and some retro synth music- it's pretty to look at, and listen to. It's disturbing and weird, and most certainly haunting. The lack of explanations and reasoning contribute to a vague nightmarish quality that lets your imagination fill in the blanks. Beyond the Black Rainbow is a fantastic 'midnight movie'. A cult hit that I'd love to see on the big screen. You either like this kind of thing... or you don't. I feel somewhat sad that there are people out there unwilling to even give a flick like this a chance. It deserves to be seen more.

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