Movies like Beyond the Black Rainbow seem destined for a sort of cult status. Certainly that would be the goal of a movie like this, from its faux VHS sales pitch about a strange New Age-y healing center that sounds suspiciously like a cult to the sudden, jarring shift to electronica-ridden 1983 futurism aesthetics. This movie, the debut feature from writer/director Panos Cosmatos, desperately wants to ride on temporal and tonal nostalgia, undoubtedly from people who are too young to properly remember what 1983 looked and sounded like.
Beyond the Black Rainbow opens with that sales pitch for the Arboria Institute, narrated by an achingly 70s-looking chap named Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), who sells the dream of some sort of pan-spiritual awakening through good living and vague mysticism. In reality, the institute seems to be more of a space age prison, all sterile hallways and far too many lighted buttons without labels. Dr. Nyle has only one patient: a young girl named Elena (Eva Allan), who seems a veritable prisoner in the institute and who Nyle manipulates at leisure.
Nyle seems to be grooming Elena into something greater-than-human, though at the same time his obsession takes on the overt threat of sexual longing as he compares her to her mother, who he apparently once knew or worked with before her mysterious death put Elena into his care. Things only become more complicated when Elena exhibits signs of telekinesis, causing bloody noses and headaches in the staff when Nyle turns off a glowing pyramid that exists seemingly only to control her psychic tantrums.
The problem is all of this is presented in the most nauseatingly navel-gazing terms, taking forever to establish even the barest threats of plot. Instead, the movie is in love with its aesthetics, taking long moments to dwell upon the visual fascination of long white hallways, turtlenecked psychiatrists, and young girls in white gowns drugged and draped over various modernist furniture in contortions of a sort of existential dread that the movie never actually bothers to try to make anybody feel. And while it’s undoubtedly sure to inspire a lot of very handsome looking desktop wallpapers when it makes its way onto Blu-Ray, the protracted moments are pregnant with a lack of context and meaning that turn them into directorial fetish pieces. There are only so many times you can watch a camera blur a scene artistically or cut around to various static rooms before even the most attractive scenes become a meaningless smear of rapidly diminishing visual novelty.
It gets even worse when the ‘plot’ kicks off, and the movie takes its time to devolve into terrifyingly blown out and indecipherable scenes about some sort of oil monster being birthed back in the 60s and the scientists having their third eyes open. It’s the same ill-defined nonsense that opened the movie, but instead of reading as joking send-up of science fiction tropes it takes on the air of assumed profundity. Whatever these things are supposed to mean (and nobody bothers trying to explain anything, so I can only assume they’re meant to mean nothing), they just end up doubling down on a pretension so cloyingly self-important that it becomes unintentionally eye-rollingly bad.
Which is where the question of cult comes in. If an audience was drunk enough or high enough, I can only imagine they’d find plenty to mock especially as the film starts to pick up steam. And as it rolls into its third act, it takes a sharp left turn when suddenly Elena tries to escape from the institute and the movie takes on slasher tropes as Dr. Nyle pursues her through the labyrinthine structure and beyond into the wilds. It’s not a tonal shift that does the movie any favors, but it comes so strikingly out of the blue and manages to actually commit to so much of the cliches of the genre that most of the audience ended up laughing at the turn. Not with the movie, mind, as it still seems to think this whole charade has some sort of deep meaning—but there are plenty of movies that have lived long lives based on audiences openly mocking what someone once took very seriously.
It’s a shame, because so much of the formal choices are smart ones. The movie riffs on such diverse elements as science fiction stalwarts 2001 and Solaris to arthouse darlings like The Holy Mountain, only to seem like a full sham when it does nothing with those kinds of visual homages. Add to that a shockingly brilliant electronic score by composer Jeremy Schmidt, who gives the whole thing a 70s sci-fi feel that evokes many many more emotions than the actual film does. But that technical competency is taken beyond the tolerance of even the most open audiences, and mostly manages to magnify the flaws of what an audience is going to be subjected to, and even as a tone piece sci-fi screensaver the movie manages to feel more indulgent than visually arresting.