Review: Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

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Cast: Eva Allan, Michael Rogers, Scott Hylands
Director: Panos Cosmatos
Country: Canada
Genre: Mystery | Sci-Fi | Horror
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Notes: Beyond the Black Rainbow opens in limited release today.

If science is a way of objectively understanding the world around us, then science fiction is perhaps a means by which to filter such knowledge through the lens of human subjectivity. While traditional thinking has pitted science and religion as philosophical antitheses, both strive to overcome the logistical impasse of human purpose: why are we here? The greatest science fiction operates as an existential tome, conferring unto its readers a deeper appreciation of the human condition, and the fact that we are all lost souls floundering in a sea of our own insignificance. Its elliptical and obtuse confrontation of this quintessential aspect of humanity is what continues to make Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey the genre’s defining work for many. The same broad thematic scope informs Beyond the Black Rainbow, a film so unflinchingly ambitious in its imagery and cinematic aspirations as to make it among the greatest works of science fiction to emerge in Kubrick’s wake.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is so much more than mere emulation: Cosmatos has, like any great artist, imbued the influence of his forebears with the freshness of his own ideas to fashion a seamless mass of bustling energy and bravado fantasque.

The comparisons to Kubrick heaped upon Panos Cosmatos’ film have been many, and not without reason. Exorbitant yet sparse set designs; open spaces flooded with colour; a consistently modernist aesthetic: in visual terms Beyond the Black Rainbow never stops nodding to 2001. Its contextualisation as Lynchian, too, is not unwarranted—it features a particularly prominent acknowledgement of this influence—nor as Cronenbergian. For all the efforts that have been made to label Cosmatos, however, he demonstrates in this, his debut, a cinema entirely of his own construct. He owes a debt to the aforesaid filmmakers and more besides, no question, but Beyond the Black Rainbow is so much more than mere emulation: Cosmatos has, like any great artist, imbued the influence of his forebears with the freshness of his own ideas to fashion a seamless mass of bustling energy and bravado fantasque.

A work with a thriving complexity and unbridled oddity to challenge even the most experimental-minded of cineastes, Beyond the Black Rainbow resists the convenience of narrative summation for the simple reason that it lacks one, or at least one that matters in the conventional sense of narratology. The spectres of humanity which inhabit the dazzling images that compose Cosmatos’ film are less characters as we know them than concepts anthropomorphised, than abstract ideas given recognisable embodiment. There is a doctor, and a nurse, and between them the patient they tend in a facility of mysterious purpose and even more mysterious architecture. Conversations with the patient, a young woman, offer echoes of River in Serenity, but again such comparisons fail to effectively convey the true nature of a film so wonderfully unique.

Norm Li’s astounding cinematography charts an effulgently lit path through a weird world of formalistic glory, as eerily oppressive as it is almost overwhelmingly beautiful. The omnipresent tones of Jeremy Schmidt’s score hang heavy over every scene, the harrowing synthesis at once utterly terrifying and strangely moving…

If sci-fi is truly a way to grapple with the vast concepts of existence, then Beyond the Black Rainbow is as much about sci-fi as it is a work of the genre itself. The doctor character, played with disquieting benignity and inflamed agitation in equal doses by Michael Rogers, appears to see in his patient a means to understand the lofty questions which dominate his every waking moment. He’s not unlike us in this way; we turn to art to discover how others react to these ponderings, and thence to formulate our own. The refulgent majesty of Beyond the Black Rainbow lies in the fact that these grand philosophies are espoused not through empty pontificating, but through a tantalising dreamscape of hazy surreality and atmospheric auras. Norm Li’s astounding cinematography charts an effulgently lit path through a weird world of formalistic glory, as eerily oppressive as it is almost overwhelmingly beautiful. The omnipresent tones of Jeremy Schmidt’s score hang heavy over every scene, the harrowing synthesis at once utterly terrifying and strangely moving, though not quite so much as when they disappear without warning. No film in recent years, nor even many distant ones, has implemented sound to such hauntingly mesmeric effect. It allows Cosmatos to set a precedent for the preternatural imagery it later accompanies. If the film could be said to have a crescendo, it would be an extended flashback sequence halfway through. The scene manages in a film devoid of familiar cinematic style to stand out as distinctly alien from recognisable screen imagery. It’s an extended moment of unadulterated terror, as rich in visceral visuals as in spermatic symbolism.

People often insist upon a division between films you need to critically engage with and those you can sit back and simply bear witness to. Beyond the Black Rainbow is the kind of experience that exhibits the folly of such distinction. Cosmatos takes the hands of his viewers and invites them on an overpowering odyssey through the deepest stretches of human imagination and philosophical potentiality. It seeks to enlighten, to incite, to entice, and above all to entertain, albeit in ways not traditionally thought of as entertaining. It demands no overabundance of critical faculty, simply because the mind cannot help but freely and feebly proffer it in the face of such spellbinding cinematic engagement. Beyond the Black Rainbow encourages us to recognise the void, the vast gulf of knowledge between being here and knowing why. It wants us to look beyond the here and now into the furthest reaches of infinity, but also to fear the dangers of such searching. It is a film as much about life as it is a reflection of life: a different experience for us all, a terrifying trip from one black void to another.

[notification type=”star”]94/100 ~ AMAZING. Beyond the Black Rainbow encourages us to recognise the void, the vast gulf of knowledge between being here and knowing why, inviting us on an overpowering odyssey through the deepest stretches of human imagination and philosophical potentiality.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.