Memories of the Aquarian Age

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

Beyond The Black Rainbow is a film about utopians, the darker side of human nature, and cool synth tracks.
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As I mentioned back in my discussion of scientific romances, I always love it when art gets personal. All art is about its creator to some extent, of course, but there are a few who go beyond that, that put their passions on the page, the canvas, the clay, or the film strip in their rawest, purest form. The results may be awe-inspiring or horrifying, but they are never dull.

What I’m trying to say is that if I could look into the head of Panos Cosmatos, the writer and director of Beyond The Black Rainbow, I think I would find him to be a pretty cool dude.

Beyond The Black Rainbow is a love letter to so many things that it’s hard to count. It mixes the ultraclean steel-and-plastic futurism of 1970s sci-fi film and the psychedelia of Altered States with the imagery of the 1980s slasher film. There’s Kubrick and Lucas and Tarkovsky and Carpenter and direct-to-video directors whose names you don’t know and documentaries you saw back in elementary school all harmoniously blended into a whole. Hell, even F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang pop in to say hi.

The film opens with an old commercial, the sort of thing you used to see on your local television station at about 3 in the morning, for something called “the Arboria Institute.” As its founder, the soft-spoken Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands) explains, his institute is a place where science and spirituality meet, a combination lab and retreat where researchers trained in “benign pharmacology, sensory therapy, and energy sculpting” help clients realize their untapped potential and achieve inner peace. According to Arboria, the answers to the questions that have plagued man for millennia are seemingly within grasp.

As the movie starts, in the near future of 1983, it becomes clear that things have not gone according to plan. Arboria has become a hard, desolate place. Every room is bathed in either a harsh white light that erases all shadow or a malevolent red gloom. The air is permeated with the buzz of fluorescent lights, CRT televisions, and the inescapable thrum of a mysterious white octahedron that seems to pacify the institute’s inhabitants. Jump-suited and blank-helmeted “sentionauts” patrol the endless hallways. Mercurio himself has long since lost interest in his work, having vanished to a basement apartment to get high off his own supply. The institute lies in the hands of Arboria’s head of research, Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers). Nyle, with his turtleneck, sports coat, and helmet of hair, bears more than a passing resemblance to the late Carl Sagan, but Nyle is Sagan’s dark mirror. Nyle is at home in the world of Arboria, commanding the institute and its inhabitants through surveillance, manipulation, and humiliation. Nyle’s current target is the mysterious Elena (Eva Allen), a young woman with a great power that Nyle covets.

Now, the thing about personal works of art is that their nature precludes them from having a massive audience. Anyone coming into Beyond The Black Rainbow expecting a typical sci-fi movie will probably leave disappointed. There is little in the way of dialogue. The plot of the movie is a fairly simple “girl in a tower” story, albeit one filled with ambiguity. It is a movie where story and meaning are conveyed almost entirely through the visuals. Through its deliberate pace, its oversaturated palettes, and camera work that obfuscates the viewer’s ability to estimate spacial relationships, Arboria is imagined as a zone of pure oppression, a place that prevents any opponents from mobilizing against it by denying them the ability to know who and where they are.

The beauty and craft of the visuals cannot be overstated; Beyond The Black Rainbow is probably the first example of “retro” filmmaking I have seen that could be sent back in time and not arouse any comment. The film was shot on older cameras, making the film look like a genuine product of the 1980s, and the effects are predominately practical. Every dollar spent on the film is on the screen, and even the lack of money is an asset for the film; the lack of extras and elaborate sets serve to make Arboria a bleaker place, a tomb for the future.

The imagery of a tomb is appropriate; while Beyond The Black Rainbow is in love with the aesthetic of 1970s futurism, it is rather more critical of its content. There is a strong antiutopian streak running through the film, though perhaps more critical of utopia as a practical concept than as an ideal. The root of this criticism can be found in the heart of the film, in a flashback sequence entitled “1966.” Shot in a monochrome so intense that characters are reduced to black hair, eyes, and mouths against endless white, the flashback depicts the births of both Elena and Nyle. Nyle, an earnest young man, takes a hit of LSD and immerses himself into a pit of black oil, commanded by Mercurio to “bring back the mother lode.” Nyle comes back, but rather than bringing back peace or enlightenment, he is transformed into a being of pure id, a creature filled with pain that equates sex with consumption. Even after Nyle kills his wife Anna (Sara Stocksad), Mercurio blithely immerses his infant daughter Elena in the same pool. In the end, Mercurio is painted as a fool, as a man who always assumed the best of humanity and as such was unable to see the more malevolent side of human nature. Being unable to understand evil, he was unable to understand what Nyle had become and prevent him from consuming his world whole.

(As an aside, it should be noted that the idea of men encountering a mysterious black oil that supposedly contains all the wisdom of the universe but merely transforms them into a reflection of life at its most bestial has marked parallels with a more recent film. That film, incidentally, also made excellent use of older forms of science fiction put to new ends.)

Mercurio finally dies in the last third of the film, the recipient of a fatal overdose from Nyle. With his death, the tone of the film changes drastically. Nyle sheds his Saganian skin and becomes an avatar of Jason by way of Nosferatu. Elena makes her escape as Arboria’s defenses fail around her. The film slowly evolves into a slasher movie. There are even jokes in the visuals. While this shift in tone is jarring, it makes a certain amount of sense. The world of Arboria was utopian concept dreamed into being by Mercurio. Like many historical utopias, it was a society built around the authority of Mercurio, which enforced its structure and its internal relations. Nyle was not able to kill Mercurio and take command of Arboria; all he could do was render the old man compliant and rule in his name. In his greed, he killed the old man in an attempt to seize Elena for himself, not realizing that Mercurio’s death resulted in the death of Arboria itself, and hence of the system from which he drew his own power.

Beyond The Black Rainbow is not an easy movie to get into, but it is a unique experience. The only thing that could make it better would be if the soundtrack (filled with spoilery clips, alas) was available for purchase. Seriously, if you like ominous ambient synthesizer music, this movie is utopia.
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