Underground art rebels against a standard; "Beyond the Black Rainbow" is an incoherent audiovisual extravaganza for its own sake. The feature-length debut of director Panos Cosmatos, it's a wacky, carefully designed, totally inscrutable science fiction puzzle. With a minimum of plot and consistently extraordinary visuals, Cosmatos delivers an intoxicating mindtrip that defies logic in favor of a hypnotic rhythm.
The story takes place in some modified, futuristic version of 1983, in a mysteriously barren factory bathed in red lights presided over by the enigmatic Dr. Barry Nyle. An eerie advertisement in the opening minutes erratically displays explosive imagers on par with the most abstract Stan Brakhage concoction. In the commercial, the doctor promotes the services of the "Arboria" lab in hushed monotone, fleshing out how its "sensory therapy" can "guide you along the path to a new, better, happier you." It's not hard to detect the nefariousness at work here and Cosmatos wastes no time setting it up: In Nyle's creepy lair, he keeps psychically endowed teenager Elena (Eva Allan) as prisoner, hoping to absorb her powers for his own gain.
Actually, if you're impatient, Cosmatos wastes plenty of time. "Black Rainbow" is filled with slow, artfully crafted tracking shots and spacey music cues. There's a lengthy sequence where (I think) Nyle travels to another world with his mind. He arrives at a hellacious place filled with ominous clouds and grotesque fluids that defy gravity by apparently falling upwards. It's an extraordinary sight, whatever it means. According to press notes, Cosmatos was inspired by "hazy childhood memories of midnight movies and Saturday morning cartoons," although it has more in common with the former than the latter.
But what's equally beguiling and fun about a movie this unselfconsciously out there is it inhabits nostalgia rather than simply paying homage to it. In mood, the fantastical sets and dazzling cinematography recall "2001: A Space Odyssey," while the minimalistic, weirdly philosophical narrative has a lot in common with George Lucas' "THX 1138." The dark psychedelic dimension suggests a splashier version of "Eraserhead." It doesn't wink and nod to these movies; the echoes are there, but they result in an entirely fresh brand of strangeness.
Still, it should be noted that "Beyond the Black Rainbow" is so in love with its mad visual design that it can become numbingly incoherent, which may lead some viewers to deem the whole endeavor overly pretentious. Elena is essentially the hero of the story and becomes increasingly intent on escaping the compound, but the movie emphasizes Nyle's mounting insanity; it's hard to view her as much more than a figure of sympathy to counteract his rage.
Few movies put this sort of chaos onscreen; it's a fascinating display of light and color that Cosmatos beefs up with a hypnotic mechanical soundtrack by Jeremy Schmidt. A fleeting glimpse of Ronald Reagan discussing the Soviet threat on TV deepens the capacity for "Black Rainbow" to work as a paean to 1980s' media, maybe even as a tribute to an era in which reaction to the Cold War led to the proliferation of rampant paranoia. That time has passed, but "Black Rainbow" makes it clear that the spell lingers.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Too experimental for wide release, "Beyond the Black Rainbow" could play well at genre festivals and gain enough of a cult following to propel interest in whatever Cosmatos does next.
criticWIRE grade: B+