By the next morning, I had all but forgotten what 'Beyond the Black Rainbow' is really about. For any other movie, this would signal its death knell, an indication of its failure to make much of a lasting impression.
In my book — and I'm sure this is true of many moviegoers — story and plot, no matter how feeble or gimcrack, always take equal importance with the visual design. We need characters and a central conflicting drama to illicit an emotional response from the audience. Coupled with striking imagery and lush cinematography, this is the spirit of film art, to capture the imagination and excite our passions.
Don't get me wrong, there are exceptions to this rule (the visually-arresting poetry of Luis Buñuel quickly comes to mind), but even in any of those examples we still find a story driving the imagery to a satisfying conclusion. First time writer and director Panos Cosmatos appears to be working from a different mind frame, but can't say for certain if it's deliberate or the result of inexperience.
He places more emphasis on the look of his debut movie, like some long-lost, poorly-made grindhouse feature recently rediscovered, than on a story that surely would've made that look all the more remarkable. Its visual design is undeniably astonishing, and it's about the only thing making the film noteworthy, which can be both a good and bad thing, depending on what you're in the mood for. Unfortunately for Cosmatos, I'm always in the mood for a story with salient pictures, which his film sadly fails to deliver, wasting a great deal of potential.
With unique photography by Norm Li that feels aged and weathered, the surreal, phantasmagoric images are impressive and haunting. They largely go unexplained and are incomprehensible — which does appear to be intentional — flimsily linked together by the director's desire for them to be connected rather than arising from an intelligible plotline. The dreamlike visuals are evocative yet elusive, lingering in the mind and strangely hinting at nightmarish grotesqueries as we put more though into them.
The filmmakers borrow liberally from other illusory sci-fi classics, most notably Kubrick's '2001' and Lucas's 'THX 1138,' to piecemeal this visionary appeal that sometimes borders on the tedious. There were also trances of Ken Russell's trancelike 'Altered States' sprinkled throughout.
The idea and semblance of a plot can still be found in 'Beyond the Black Rainbow,' but it's only just that — the façade of a story, a very thin veneer that allows for the visuals. At the start, we see an infomercial for the fictional Arboria Institute, explaining the desire to attain happiness through science and technology but generating suspicions of a crazed cult obsessed with ideals of achieving the perfect human. As the movie progresses, the latter turns out to be true, as the institute is slowly revealed like some kind of underground experimenting facility fixated on an imaginary future out of 'THX 1138' and Douglas Trumbull's 'Silent Running.'
At the center, we have a young girl named Elena (Eva Allan in her big-screen debut and doing exceptionally well) with what we can only guess is a mysterious telekinetic power that can kill. In fact, much of this is nothing more than guessing because none of it is ever fully expounded on. Powerful as she is — or at least, we think she is — Elena is nonetheless controlled by an even less explained pyramid that lights up and smokes profusely.
The man manipulating the dials and holding her captive is a darkly pensive, skeletal-looking figure, Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), a scientist with a shocking but still frustratingly cryptic secret. Rogers is fantastically creepy and disturbing in the role where he inexplicably desires Elena, who we remain unsure is meant to be turned into a robotic soldier or used for her power.
In the end, 'Beyond the Black Rainbow' is a perplexing but visually inventive debut feature, offering more by way of nightmarishly arresting eye-candy than a jarring, mind-bending experience of the intellect. The effort is on artistic photography that evokes classic sci-fi and exploitation cinema, told as if from a forgotten and poorly remembered dream.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Magnolia Home Entertainment brings 'Beyond the Black Rainbow' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD25 disc inside a blue, eco-lite case. After a few skippable trailers, viewers are taken to a standard main menu screen with full-motion clips and music playing in the background.
'Beyond the Black Rainbow' arrives to Blu-ray with a highly-stylized video that looks aged and weathered, and this AVC-encoded transfer (2.35:1) is faithful to the filmmakers' aspirations. The intentional photography, which emulates the appearance and feel of a low-budget grindhouse feature, is surprisingly convincing with white specks and minor scratches popping up sporadically. A thick grain structure which fluctuates slightly in a several spots adds to the illusion and creates an appealing film-like quality.
However, the look makes for an overall unattractive picture quality as contrast falls below average for a majority of the runtime, yet whites are brilliant and cleanly-rendered. Except for a few scattered scenes, blacks also tend to come across faded with murky shadows that can obscure background information, which could likely be deliberate as well. The color palette is limited and largely subdued although reds and blues appear accurate and occasionally quite vibrant. There are some noticeable moments of banding and posterization hindering the presentation further. Definition and clarity takes a big hit due to the cinematography and several soft-focus scenes, but in general, details are reasonably sharp with particularly revealing close-ups and strong fine textures.
It's not much of a looker, but its faithful to the filmmakers' intentions.
The psychedelic sci-fi movie fares much better in the audio department with a deliberate sound design that creates a strange and unusual listening experience. From the start, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack feels spacious and expansive, spreading across all three front channels with ease and extraordinary fidelity. Imaging is appreciably extensive and wide with a precise mid-range, and the bass is surprisingly powerful and far-reaching with several ultra-low frequencies that rattle the walls. Amid all this, dialogue remains crystal-clear and intelligible.
Although the mysterious institute is largely silent, like some air-tight, hygienic chamber, there is still a weird assortment of noises to be heard. Strange alarms, bizarre chimes, odd dings and voices from the television fill the rest of the soundstage. These same sounds make up most of the rear activity as well, extending the soundfield with a satisfying, immersive effect. The original experimental music also expands into the back and fills the room with a haunting sense of dread and anxiety. The lossless mix is consistent, almost relentless, in the way it surrounds the listening area and generates an apprehensive environment as part of the film's highly unusual viewing experience.
Visually striking and highly imaginative, 'Beyond the Black Rainbow' evokes classic sci-fi and exploitation cinema with admirably immersive effectiveness. Sadly, a darkly cryptic and somewhat tiresome plot hampers much of the film's potential, causing more work for the audience than it's worth. The Blu-ray comes with a picture quality that's faithful to the filmmakers' intentions but doesn't translate well for high-def video. However, the audio presentation is excellent and highly entertaining, but the lack of supplements makes this a rental at best.