The 13th Floor

What a Trip: Revisiting the Mind-Blowing Epic BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW

Sci-fi is better when it’s freaky. I’m all in favor of a good, rollicking spaceship adventure (who isn’t?), but science fiction, as a genre, tends to function more naturally when it’s dealing with freaky abstracts and barely-graspable Big Ideas. The promise of the sciences, after all, is to help humanity come to a much deeper understanding about the technical operations of the natural world. The logical conclusion of the sciences, then, would be that of infinite understanding. Knowledge of all things. The word “science” is, you see, embedded in “omniscience.”

Of course, when science fiction pushes into that realm — into questions of Infinite Understanding — we come upon an important mathematic constant: Human fallibility. It’s hard to think in terms of pure science because humans, while capable of rational thought, aren’t driven by it. We can still be prone to love, humor, darkness, and evil. There are films and stories in the world that deal with where that border lies: How far can we push a human mind toward infinite understanding before it snaps? And if that mind is drawn toward evil, what then?

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These are the central questions — I think — in Panos Cosmatos’ BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, a 2011 pastiche of the freakier, deeper, and more psychedelic films to come from sci-fi in the wake of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. It’s such an odd and ambitious film, one can easily dismiss it as a style exercise; a throw-back to an era of sci-fi when filmmakers were pushing the envelope more, and sci-fi was going through a hallucinatory phase.

BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW definitely takes a lot of cues from 2001, ZARDOZ, SOLARIS, and THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, but owes most heavily to Saul Bass’ directorial debut PHASE IV from 1974. Cosmatos has also cited Alain Resnais’ LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD as a central influence.

Eva Allan as Elena in Beyond The Black Rainbow

BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW remembers a time when the sciences were being more openly overlapped with spirituality. Science’s promises of infinite knowledge are, of course, directly in line with the infinite knowledge of deities, and the further the sciences advance, the more one can see the mind of God. This was certainly the ambition of scientists like Wilhelm Reich, and was often discussed by Carl Sagan. The sciences and spirituality were both ways, it was once said, of looking at the infinite. As such, BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW starts with images of a scientific/spiritual utopia, and traces what happens to such an enclave after a generation of cynicism and madness has infected it.

BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW is, I should immediately state, nearly impossible to understand. It’s told in long, long, long takes, has very little in the way of explanatory dialogue, and features a pulsating musical drone that lulls a viewer into a hypnotic state of near non-being. This is a form of dark meditation, and the filmmakers are going to make sure that you are not at ease. Oddly enough, this droning slowness is also a great way to lull some viewers to sleep; many critics admitted to nodding off while watching the film at home.

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That said, here’s the story of BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, as far as I have been able to determine: In an underground lab, founded in the 1960s, but still operating today, an experiment is being conducted. The subject is a near-mute young woman named Elena (Eva Allen). Elena may have psychic powers, but doesn’t seem to have any emotions. The only way to make sure she reacts to stimulus is to essentially torture her. The scientist in question is a near-psychopathic tyrant named Dr. Nyle (Michael Rogers) who seems to have lost all semblances of humanity. We never see the sky, and there don’t seem to be many other people in this universe. This is a locked box of psychological torture. One would be forgiven if they saw a metaphor for domestic abuse.

We learn that Elena can be controlled by activating some sort of subterranean crystal sculpture that Dr. Nyle has access to. We don’t know what the crystal is or how exactly it functions, but we know it can do Elena harm. We also see that Nyle has access to a team of robot-like beings called Sentionauts that he keeps in a secret chamber of the institute. These Sentionauts occasionally give Elena injections. The Sentionauts look like a cross between an ’80s BMX enthusiast, and a lost member of Daft Punk.

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As the film progresses, Dr. Nyle becomes increasingly unhinged and seems to be going slowly mad. It’s eventually revealed Dr. Nyle was more or less driven mad by drug experiments conducted on him decades earlier. The founder of the institute where he works was a peace-love-and-understanding hippie type who was deep into the science of spirituality, and his generation’s popular exploration of alternative belief systems. Dr. Nyle was once submerged in a tub of black hallucination liquid, and came out on the other side something less-than-human (echoes of ALTERED STATES). Eventually, Elena will escape the institute, and Dr. Nyle, revealing that he has no hair, and that his eyes are pure black, will give chase. The story ends in death, although I’ll leave to details for you to discover.

While watching BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, you may feel baffled. The slow pace, eerie music, and unrecognizable iconography are meant to keep the viewer off-balance, leaving them at a weird emotional arms-distance. It is deliberately inscrutable.

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This was not a failing on the part of the filmmakers, but a noble aesthetic ambition; when delving deep into the weird non-infinity of the human mind, and discovering blackness, drugs, and madness, one should perhaps be kept in a fugue state. The film is attempting to bring your mind to its own pace, knowing full well that most human minds aren’t necessarily well-prepared to slow down that much. Or speed up that much, depending on your perspective.

Indeed, Cosmatos has said that he wanted to break, on purpose, from the conventional aesthetic and storytelling commonalities of conventional melodrama. Cosmatos’ father, for instance, was George P. Cosmatos, the director of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, COBRA, and TOMBSTONE. Panos, in what might be considered an attempt to invert his family’s cinematic legacy, turned to cinematic surrealism. Cinema can do anything. Why merely tell stories?

BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, however, is more than just an exercise in cinematic pacing and extreme style. There is also an important set of anti-Baby Boomer notions at work. The film is set in the 1980s, right when Generation X was coming of age, and the Baby Boomers were just beginning to age out. As such, the 1980s were a time when disaffected young people began to see the long-term consequences of Baby Boomers’ actions. The Boomers’ attempts at “alternate belief systems,” Cosmatos seems to feel, leaked down to the younger generations in the form of a vague inter-generational corruption.

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The Boomers took LSD in an attempt to expand the mind, but were really just sitting around putting chemicals in their bodies, becoming more dogmatically obsessed with proving their “new” ideas. LSD was not going to unlock anything. The tank of black hallucination liquid is clearly a stand-in for LSD. The intentions may have been good, but the actual practice only led to deterioration. That may be what the title means. The “rainbow” of the 1960s has become black. We must get beyond it.

Cosmatos’ comment, then, is a warning away from dogmatic thinking. There is certainly a cognitive divide between having beliefs and having belief systems. It’s the difference between operating on good ideas, and enforcing a set of rules. There’s no way to see where the line is, but we certainly know when we’ve crossed it. It’s difficult to say if Cosmatos is trying to encourage a return to more conventional faith systems with longer-standing traditions and intellectual forebears, or if he’s encouraging the excising of all belief systems altogether. Either way, he is pointing to a 1980s world where a previous generation’s optimism has soured into a bare-faced form of interpersonal mastery, a loss of control, and a rise of psychosis.

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On a more intellectual level, BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW is also a treatise on the notion of domination. I mentioned above that one could perhaps see a symbol of domestic abuse. We have a half-mad male constantly emotionally manipulating a young woman who has no voice, taking every opportunity to belittle her and get her to feel rage. The dynamic, and the mood, seem to closely resemble a unfortunately recognizable cycle of bullying. The woman has power, but she has no contact with other people. The man has emotionally caged her.

Even if the film isn’t about the extreme of domestic abuse, however, there is still a lingering theme of psychological domination that exists in all our lives. We find ourselves manipulating — or being manipulated by -– other minds around us. All of life is a weird power game, trying to convince others of ideas, talking others into doing things for us. BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW addressed that dynamic, explored through extreme sci-fi imagery.

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BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW is certainly a film that deals in abstracts, and the harshest criticism that can be leveled in its direction may be that it stimulates intellectually while leaving one emotionally cold. That could very well be true. But films don’t necessarily have to operate within the limited scope of emotion. They can be Apollonian as well. All mind. And, of course, one needs to enter the realm of pure mind to see that madness can come from that realm.

It’s a challenging and complex film, to be sure, and one that may be worth the fight.

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