Beyond the Black Rainbow: Visual Madness

What happens when you collide Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with Alejandro Jodorosky’s The Holy Mountain? A very strange walk down a visual and audio based dream from newcomer director/writer Panos Cosmatos. But can visuals alone carry an entire film, even if it’s an art film?

Cosmatos, son of George Cosmatos (Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra, Tombstone), set out to create a very bold image that, despite the film being produced in 2010, harks back to the distinct feel of early 80’s science fiction. Considering the story of Beyond the Black Rainbow is set specifically in 1983, one could argue that this is a period piece, the vision of how the future would look from a past perspective. To cut to the chase, the film is certainly pleasing to the eye. Every frame could be used as a high art print, but watching them in motion can cause some viewers to grow tired of the tepid pacing.

Given the style Cosmatos is trying to emulate, it’s understandable why the pacing would be slower than usual, I personally understand every argument as to why the film is set the way it is. In an interview with CHUD.com, Cosmatos reflected that during the production of the film he was creating a film that he wanted to make and didn’t care how the audience would feel about it. While this sentiment is understandable to the nature of the media and what it means to be an artist and all those other arguments you heard in film school, Cosmatos himself even admits that once he actually watched the completed film he himself wasn’t sure exactly what he had made. I’m okay with this, it’s his first film, it’s his first script, he took a very bold move and accomplished his goal. As others have mentioned, his father went from directing lackluster action films to eventually making the acclaimed Tombstone, so if anything I’m already excited to see what this director has in store for us next. This does not, however, leave his first film untouchable.

In that same interview, Cosmatos joked that the script was only “11 pages” and people believed it. Despite the actual script running 86 pages, when watching the film it doesn’t feel like that at all. There is a lot of dead air accompanied only by the constant droning of the film’s score. Dialog is short, barely understandable, and only serves to nudge the story along bit by bit. A lot of people have criticized the film for lacking sense or cohesion but when you step back and look at the broad strokes it’s actually a really simple story: a girl is trapped in a futuristic asylum posing as a new-age therapy center, harassed by her obsessed doctor, and then she escapes. The end. Sure there’s a lot of things unexplained, mostly in the form of objects whose significance is never addressed (an ominous glowing pyramid that appears to nullify people, a tall man in a Daft Punk/Tron outfit, a “Sentinaut”, whose job apparently is to stand around until someone needs a tag inserted into them, a leather jacket and a strange knife/claw thing, a book containing crude drawings, etc.), or at the latent psychic abilities the female lead, Alena, seems to have, but these kind of things didn’t really need to be addressed as the basic plot was clear enough. I’ve heard the argument that both the pacing and unexplained nature of the film is to mimic the sensation of being heavily sedated as characters in the movie are, and I can see where that’s coming from but I think it’s more about learning how far to go in filmmaking. Cosmatos himself comments that his story was a bit more than he could manage and that he’s still learning the right balance. Unfortunately, the film is simply too slow with to much nothing in between. The visuals help distract you, but shots go on way longer than they should and it’s very difficult to fight the urge to check your phone or do something else while the film plays. In fact I think this movie would be perfect playing in the background of some San Francisco bar.

This is not to say the story is worthless. Cosmatos does accomplish some genuinely intense moments and very creepy scenes but the pacing kills whatever tension lead up or follows these moments. With some trimming and reworking, this film could be a great sci-fi thriller, all the pieces are there.

The film has few actors, with the role of Dr. Barry Nyle played by Michael Rogers and Elena played by Eva Allan. Michael, through necessity, carried the film by himself. He did a fine job in acting profoundly creepy and evident that he is just as whacked out on drugs and psychosis as any of the other patients at ARBORIA. You get the sense of his obsession with Elena early on and his transformation over the film includes one of those jaw-dropping moments I was talking about earlier (and, unfortunately, a very clumsy, cop-out way to end his story. I was actually upset.). Some people criticize his character as playing his cards on the table too early so we get no build up, but I think there was a progression of his madness that grew. In fact I would say this film is another piece of evidence in my claims that the protagonist is not necessarily the good guy, just the person who changes for better or worse. This is compounded by how one-dimensional Elena was. Speaking of Elena, Eva Allan did exactly what the role asked for, but the role was just her standing around looking cute in a depressed way and occasionally rolling her eyes into her head. There was more life, ironically, in all the other characters of the film.

Despite the slow-as-syrup story and the mostly lacking characters the film does one thing as perfectly as you could accomplish: Vision. I don’t mean just visually but the entire art direction of the film.  Despite having only a $1.1M budget this film has all the look of a professional Hollywood studio piece. Part of the magic of this movie is just how perfectly this could be slipped into a shelf of 80’s sci-fi and how it’s real age would go unnoticed. The execution of Cosmatos’ homage is flawless and no where is the illusion shattered by the use of inappropriate CGI, special effects, or other contemporary elements. His shot composition and framing only add to the nostalgic quality of the piece created by use of vintage post-processing. The score, a droning synthesizer beat by Jeremy Schmidt, helps lock in the era without running the risk of sounding too much like modern electronic music (though some argue the repetitive score furthers the dragging pace).

So what’s the end result? A film with an incredible amount of potential and stunning attention to detail dragged down by its agonizingly slow pacing. If you like trippy art films, or if you weren’t bothered by Daft Punk’s Electroma, of which the film is quite similar to, then I’d say give it a try. If 2001: A Space Odyessy bored the pants off you than I would just find a nice gallery of still shots or click through some of the scenes on YouTube and you’ll get the gist. I’m keeping a watch on Cosmatos, however, I’ve got a hunch we’re going to see something special from him in the future.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is currently avaliable on DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix.

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