Stanley Kubrick. David Cronenberg. Andrei Tarkovsky. John Carpenter. Dario Argento. George Lucas. Alejandro Jodorowsky. "Beyond the Black Rainbow" is probably the ultimate game of "spot the influence". I mean, we got one part "THX 1138", a dash of "2001", some "Solaris" seasoning", two cups of "Darkstar", and just a pinch of "Scanners". There are so many tastes to this meal, your mouth can't even keep track of what its eating. Only one problem: for all the flavoring and spice, this meal is still bland as crap. I think I'd rather have some McDonalds instead and go watch "Battleship".
The trailer for "Beyond the Black Rainbow" was just too amazing for me to possibly ignore. I already had a lot of movies on my plate in 2012, but "Beyond the Black Rainbow" shot immediately right up to second-place, right behind "Batman 3". This looked like a brilliant celebration of the dated classic styles of 70s and early 80s SciFi, and I guess it still is. Only, its celebrating the wrong SciFi movies. Instead of juicy stuff like "Altered States" or "Scanners" or even "A Clockwork Orange", it borrows waaay too much from "2001: A Space Odyssey", which happens to be one of my least favorite movies of all time. Take it this way: the movie "Solaris" has a great middle section with some brilliant rather disturbing SciFi. But at the beginning of the movie, there's a ten minute sequence of an aerial shot of highways*, which is really boring, makes no sense, and has nothing to do with anything. "Beyond the Black Rainbow" takes inspiration more from the highway sequence than the plot. Its a pretty movie, I can respect its style, but its still really really really painfully slow. You can have the trendiest most awesome 80s sensibilities that you want, but you still need characters and movement.
"Beyond the Black Rainbow" isn't quite as bad as Terry Malice-style bullshit. But its down there in the realm of modernist artsy-fartsy nonsense. There is a plot to this movie, for example, and there are scenes, and dialog, and its all at least a linear narrative. Unfortunately, the characters are either totally insane or comotose, so there's really nobody to hook onto, every scare is muted by the unending dullness of the movie's pace, and amazing imagery can't make up for what is ultimately just a really mediocre boring movie. Its creepy, its got a nice atmosphere, the retro style is cool, but that's all mere decorations. Its not a good movie, and that's what counts.
This movie is made by director Panos Cosmatos. And if I were going to imagine a movie made by somebody named "Panos Cosmatos", it would turn out to be "Beyond the Black Rainbow". He's actually the son of director, George P. Cosmatos, who is probably best known for directing classic 80s action features like "Rambo II" and "Cobra", which together are probably Stallone's two best action movies. Panos seems to want to make his own way in the world... which unfortunately means he's following in the footsteps of largely incomprehensible folks like Lars von Trier and David Lynch.
Actually, scratch that David Lynch remark. If David Lynch had directed this movie, I might actually be writing a positive review. David Lynch can be incomprehensible and weird but at least stay creepy, see the Bill Pullman portion of "Lost Highway" (the rest of the movie sucks). At the very least, Panos Cosmatos should have bowed out in favor of Cronenberg on this project.
Anyway, the plot of "Beyond the Black Rainbow" is the story of a catatonic girl, Elena, living inside the Aboria Institute, which is supposedly a state-of-the-art psychological relaxation and mediation facility. However, she appears to be the only person who is actually being treated there. Elena spends most of the movie saying nothing at all, looking scared, or avoiding the camera while crying. I guess the pressures of movie stardom got to her. There's also her doctor, Barry Nyles, who wears a totally awesome 70s haircut wig. Dr. Nyles from his first scene is revealed to be dangerously insane and out of his damn mind. However, since only three people work in the Aboria Institute, nobody seems to catch onto this fact. Nyles does drive a Delorean though, so he at least has good taste. Most of the scenes in this movie are either Elena running away through the complex bizarro labyrinth, or Nyles having really awkward conversations with people. So unfortunately, your sympathies are divided between a mute girl and a creepy psychopath.
Oh, but they both have psychic powers. The movie takes great pains to build up a huge confrontation between these two forces since Elena is just a pretty girl and Dr. Nyles is a goddamn freak who you know will rape, murder, and then eat his co-star the first chance he gets. Unfortunately, don't get your hopes up for a cool final confrontation, since the final battle consists of Dr. Nyles tripping like an idiot and cracking his head open on a rock. If "Beyond the Black Rainbow" was looking for an utterly stupid and anti-climatic way to end itself, it found it. Here I was hoping for a big psychic duel like the ending of "Scanners", instead I get a slapstick ending because Nyles forgot to tie his shoes.
By the way, the scene right before this features Dr. Nyles randomly stabbing and killing two random stoners. This is without a doubt the best-crafted scene in the entire movie. Because its a totally normal scene. The bad guy sneaks up on these two guys, takes them out with slasher movie efficiency. I wish the rest of the movie was this lucid. Or at least half the movie was this lucid. And maybe if not lucid, efficient. Everything takes so damn long to get done in this movie. I mean, you have clear good and evil in this one scene. For the rest of the movie its evil and... Miss Not Talk. Is she evil? I guess not. But even when she's escaping danger I have to wonder why I should be fearful for her, since she's a Scanner and all.
Its not a total loss, I guess. The classic 80s techno score sounds like vintage John Carpenter, making this probably the best sounding movie of 2012. And a lot of the visuals are properly fucked-up and bizarre. There is some great art direction here. If only the movie were about... fifty minutes shorter, this would have been a great little "what-the-fuck" kind of movie. Instead its a "what-the-fuck" movie that left me checking my watch and sighing.
I mean, I'm not a total philistine here, I don't need to understand every single part of every single movie. I can let myself be swept away by visuals and mood. I can even dig a movie totally lacking in any kind of attempt to make sense or write a linear narrative, as long as the movie has a sweet Cronenberg-style deranged vibe and a sense of wicked fun about itself. "Beyond the Black Rainbow" almost gets there. But still, movies like this are exhausting, especially when scenes drag on for so long and there's so little to dig into. Its a joyless experience. I spent the whole movie looking for little moments from the actors where they could bring some personality to the character, some kind of fun. I've said this before and I'll say this again, you can't build a movie on visuals alone, you need a plot and characters to get the full experience. This movie should have been classic! Instead its worthless. I'm so disappointed.
Here, let me fix this movie right now. In five simple ways:
1. Have the protagonist talk. Who is Elena? Where did she come? Why is she here? These are all things I should understand.
2. Have more than five characters in your entire movie. Yeah, you can have a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia to your movie, that's fine, but let's try to humanize your characters beforehand? Let them exist in some level of normal society before you lock them in the haunted Aboria Institute.
3. I wish I had any clue what the heck was going on with Elena's powers or whatever. What was Aboria trying to do? Why does she matter?
4. Since this is a horror movie, more gore, obviously. And tits, please.
5. I WANTED A SCANNER BATTLE AT THE END, GODDAMNIT.
Now that everybody knows I'm a total classless fool who can't love anything more than the lowest common denominator of cinema, I'll end this review.
* You can tell we were winning the Cold War in 1972 because Western SciFi had space ships and eugenic programs and robots and stuff. In contrast, Russian SciFi imagined... interstates. No joke.