***/**** Image A Sound A Extras F
starring Michael Rogers, Eva Allan, Scott Hylands
screenplay by Panos Cosmatos, inspired by the book Be Your Self by Mercurio Arboria
directed by Panos Cosmatos
by Angelo Muredda Panos Cosmatos claims he wasn't allowed to watch R-rated movies as a kid and had to make do with the lurid box covers he saw on video store shelves. Rising above those less-than-ideal conditions, the first-time helmer and son of famed Cobra and Rambo: First Blood Part II director George P. Cosmatos makes an auspicious debut with Beyond the Black Rainbow. As befits its retro title, this is a bravura pulp homage that recreates the feeling of a preteen creeping down the hall to catch a sidelong glance of the bygone genre cinema pulsing out of the living-room TV and painting the walls orange. Still, it's best approached not as a found object from that time, but as a mood piece--a sustained exercise in atmospheric nostalgia for what LCD Soundsystem eloquently called the "unremembered '80s."
Origin story aside, it's clear that Cosmatos has gotten around to watching those R-rated movies in the intervening decades. The plot, inasmuch as there is one, is cobbled together from countless genre staples. Black Mountain frontman Jeremy Schmidt's ominous analogue synths ease us into John Carpenter country, though it's 1984's Firestarter, an aborted Carpenter adaptation of the Stephen King novel dropped into the hands of Mark L. Lester, that gives Cosmatos a line on which to hang his eerie images. Here, too, we have a young woman with deadly psychic powers besieged by a shady agency, not a government initiative in this case but a New Age collective calling itself the Arboria Institute. The scene is set by an old full-frame, Painlevé-inspired instructional video from head quack Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands), who promises "benign pharmacology and energy sculpting" to the weary masses. After a trip through credits full of polarized iris-shots and volcanic clouds (shades of Douglas Trumbull, a simpatico sci-fi stylist drawn to practical effects), we're in a parallel version of 1983--a modest choice--where the asylum has been bequeathed to passive-aggressive analyst Barry (Christian Bale dead ringer Michael Rogers), who taunts imprisoned guinea pig Elena (Eva Allan) by fumbling with a dial that adjusts the intensity of a mind-controlling diamond somewhere in the compound.
It's tough to know what to make of these echoes of other texts, which strike me as something rather more complicated than mere checkpoints Beyond the Black Rainbow rolls past. Uncharitable viewers will likely find their embededness in the paper-thin narrative derivative, yet there's something richly disorienting about the film's uncanny familiarity. Cosmatos doesn't linger on the resonances long enough for you to place them. The grainy 35 mm, for example, evokes a number of movies you might have seen in passing more than any particular one. The Kubrick lifts are an instructive case: Arboria's design fits somewhere between the clean modernist lines of the space Hilton in 2001 and the mod garishness of F. Alexander's home in A Clockwork Orange. Hovering in those interstices isn't just a game for Cosmatos--it's an overarching aesthetic project of adapting a memory of cinephilia.
It would be a dull project, though, if it wasn't also singularly designed. His callbacks to other films aside, Cosmatos proves to be an elegant stylist himself, with an impressive phenomenological slant. Notice the frequency of shots that frame square neon buttons as though they were within reach and primed for pushing. There's a tactility to the whooshing doors they trigger that speaks to the director's knack for world-building, should he choose to stay in this genre. Cosmatos doesn't seem eager to ask much of his actors yet, casting a frosty Brechtian pall over even their emotional lines (which are few). But as long as he's delivering images as striking as those in the monochrome centrepiece--which features, among other memorable sights, an oil-coated man bursting out of some sort of tar womb--he'll be a talent worth keeping tabs on.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Beyond the Black Rainbow looks a lot like Criterion's Blu-ray release of the 1973 SF saga World on a Wire, as a movie and, moreover, as a Blu-ray transfer--although it is considerably sharper in HD, owing both to its recency and to its having been shot in 35mm vs. World on a Wire's 16mm. The picture, however, was apparently photographed in Techniscope, which basically levels the playing field in that Techniscope's halving of the 35mm frame to achieve a widescreen aspect ratio on the cheap results in decreased detail and increased grain. At any rate, traditional qualitative measurements don't apply in assessing the presentation on this disc, as even a recurring negative scratch that manifests itself as a thin blue line running down the length of the 2.35:1, 1080p image is obviously not something that was overlooked, but rather the purposeful product of cinephilia.
All we can really do is gauge the compression--flawless, so far as I could tell, despite Magnet's stingy allotment of 19 GB to the film--and look for digital meddling, i.e., noise-reduction, edge-enhancement, contrast boosting, etc. I detected nothing obvious of the sort. Writer-director Panos Cosmatos's alluring, nostalgic vision is beautifully preserved on BD, while the attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is loud, intricate, and all-encompassing. You realize just how much the rear channels were put to use when they're instantly evacuated by SSQ's "Anonymous"--the synth-pop theme from 1984's Cavegirl, put to decidedly better use here--in the closing credits. The state-of-the-art mix might feel a touch anachronistic, but it's in keeping with Beyond the Black Rainbow as a sensory experience. Though Magnet's press release promised making-of content, what we get, aside from a pair of startup trailers for Apartment 143 (Emergo) and Headhunters, is the pointless time-lapse demonstration "Deleted Special Effect: Ballistic Head Dissolve" (3 mins., HD/1.33:1). Oh, well: Perhaps it's better to preserve this movie's mystique.