Beyond The Black Rainbow Review: How I Tried To Avoid The Term “Fever Dream”

Beyond the Black Rainbow is a Canadian science fiction and pseudo-thriller film created by first time writer and director (from what I gleamed from IMDB) Panos Cosmatos. Beyond starts with a 60’s video reel explaining how Dr. Mercurio Arboria founded the Arboria Institute, a research facility that focuses on helping people better enjoy their lives through a mix of science and spiritualism. Years have passed from the spiritually raw 60’s to the nihilistic early 80’s and Dr. Arboria’s declining health has positioned his understudy, Dr. Barry Nyle, to take over the slowly dwindling compound. Wirey and far too into himself, Dr. Nyle spends his new found inherited complex for one single purpose; the study and (if he feels like it) treatment of a silent young girl named Elena. Truth be told, Dr. Nyle’s true goal isn’t to help Elena overcome the unspoken trauma that could explain her almost near-constant catatonic state. No, apart from an uncaring nurse named Margo, Dr. Nyle plans to use the Arboria Institute to probe his mental and sexual curiosity against Elena’s burgeoning telekinetic powers. All that’s left now is for Elena to try and escape the Arboria Institute.

Beyond’s Arboria Institute setting succeeds at instilling a feeling of pleasant claustrophobia mixed with warmth found only in the act of sitting next to a space heater.  If I was to compare Beyond to another film, it would be Hellavtor (otherwise known as The Bottled Fools) from director Hiroki Yamaguchi, as Beyond’s confined Arboria Institute patient rooms and red lit hallways remind me of Hellavator’s bedroom sized elevator. Enough time takes place in these windowless environments, with their walls covered in wood paneling, dense black polished enamel, or reflecting mirrors, that it creates this unworldly plane in an otherwise familiar early 80’s backdrop. From an interior perspective, while all the square red buttons and panels might conjure flashbacks to the film Cube, it doesn’t share Cube’s warehouse high-breathing room.

To put it nicely, Beyond The Black Rainbow is a film so visual-heavy, that the mere act of describing the warm moods of any one scene is as helpful as trying to get coherent creature designs from written depicts of Lovecraftian monstrosities. What’s nice about it, and this just comes from a personal preference of mine, is that it shows and doesn’t tell or explain. Elena’s later escape is a fantastic example of visuals first when she runs away from some of the other beyond-human inhabitants of the Institute. The two major ones in question are a decomposing creature tied up in a strait jacket and a faceless red automaton listed in the credits as a Sentionaut. The Sentionaut is great because it hints at a ton of unspoken things about the Arboria Institute. By this point, the Institute is practically devoid of any real staff, but its creations are still around. While this might piss off most viewers, I loved how the Sentioanaut wasn’t explained to death, like Dr. Nyle didn’t have an entire scene dedicated to explaining its origin story and inner workings. In other words, the story currently being told in the Arboria Institute is just one of potentially many, especially regarding its monsters.  It’s up to you, the viewer, to come up with why this thing exists, and it subtly builds the world by letting you fill in your own mystery.

Beyond is also filled with certain visual editing nuisances. The Arboria Institute promotional video that starts the film is presented letter-boxed and the film print has intentional cigarette burns and the occasional vertical line imperfection. Little bits like these give Beyond, a film released as recently as 2010, this awesome almost forgotten VHS tape quality.

An easy criticism that can be levied at Beyond is that none of its characters are deep or even likable. While I personally think the idea that all characters need to be traditionally “likable” or relatable and must have a distinct character arc is something one must apply only when appropriate, this notion does hold some water in Beyond. Elena is a simple child of other people’s drive and spiritual intrigue. She’s a test subject, a lab rat, an oddity. Honestly, Elena’s escape was simply pushing over the hamster wheel Dr. Nyle would have kept her in for eternity. From the start, you know she’s going to escape and you know Dr. Nyle’s almost none-existent staff can’t bring her back. Dr. Nyle though, does develop and have a character arc. Over the course of Beyond, glimpses of Dr. Nyle’s past experiments reveal a man who is coming to grip with the fact that he once got to walk a realm amidst gods, but now must squander that experience as an under represented human. Dr. Nyle changes over the course of the film, both mentally and physically, but keeps a constant curious outlook. Dude is creepy in a bad-touch kind of way, but man is he interesting to watch seethe and boil over.

Beyond’s distinct style isn’t just found in what you see, but also what you hear. The soundtrack by synth project Sinoia Caves ranges from calming to the point of sleep-inducing levels of relaxation to effectively cinematic and energetic. Most of it sounds like the space heater mentioned earlier, but has the occasional aware beats. Two key scenes come to mind; the first is a comforting but at the same time longing song played while Elena is messing with the T.V in her cell and thinking of her mother. What makes the song stand out is how the track keeps going until it abruptly cuts into a dull hum near the end when the scene cuts to Dr. Nyle observing Elena through a security feed. The second is this big synth keyboard cord that plays when the Sentionaut first arrives at Elena’s initial escape; almost like a big church organ just caught her sneaking out between the pews.

Beyond’s distinct style isn’t just found in what you see, but also what you hear. The soundtrack by synth project Sinoia Caves ranges from calming to the point of sleep inducing levels of relaxing to effectively cinematic. Most of it sounds like the space heater mentioned earlier, but has the occasional aware beats. Two key scenes come to mind; the first is a comforting but at the same time longing song played while Elena is messing with the T.V in her cell and thinking of her mother. What makes the song stand out is how the track keeps going until it abruptly cuts into a dull hum near the end when the scene cuts to Dr. Nyle observing Elena through a security feed. The second is this big synth keyboard cord that plays when the Sentionaut first arrives at Elena’s initial escape, almost like a big church organ just caught her sneaking out between the pews.

Pros: Scratches a bizzaro settings and lighting itch that put me in a similar mind state as Hellavator. Has a tremendous visual style done more justice with a Tumblr collection of animated gifs then with mere words. Builds its world by showing and not simply explaining, like you just have to guess what the Sentionaut is or what was the deal with the zombie patient. Soundtrack by Sinoia Caves works within the scene it’s presented in, but is also able to stand by itself.

Cons: Plot can be summed up on a napkin, and while that was probably intentional, isn’t going to pass muster with the average film viewer. Calming presentation does make it hard to stay awake and pay attention with all the warm red lights and ambient noise that sounds like you are sitting next to a space heater. For a movie all about instilling a relaxed pace, the ending sure feels like it’s rushing to end so it can play you that SSQ ending credits theme it likes so much. Dr. Nyle isn’t the easiest character to get behind, or really, deal with.

Magnolia Picture’s Magnet Releasing label released Beyond the Black Rainbow on DVD and Blu-Ray. Beyond the Black Rainbow is for people who, like me, enjoy getting lost or even confined in a scene, be it with music or interiors, but is also a movie which can’t offer much for viewers who like sweeping narratives and traditionally likable characters. Hell Beyond is going to put the average viewer to sleep. But hey, I’m perfectly chill with the idea that not all film has to inherently appeal to all viewers, so I glowingly adore Beyond The Black Rainbow.

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