In the beginning, Beyond the Black Rainbow appears to be just another slavishly loyal copycat pastiche that melds together various different kinds of ‘70s sci-fi tropes. Borrowing equally from THX 1138 and Dark Star, writer-director Panos Cosmatos only initially appears to be a fanboy with a camera. Soon thereafter, the avant-garde aesthetic that defines Beyond the Black Rainbow, which infrequently appropriates the look and iconography of Luis Buñuel and Kenneth Anger, takes over. The film is the cinematic equivalent of LSD: You will see things while you watch it and not know what to make of them. It’s an immersive trip that’s bound to work you over completely. Whether it’s a good trip or a bad trip depends entirely on the person.
Cosmatos doesn’t tell us a lot about Elena (Eva Allan), the film’s mute protagonist, apart from showing us that she’s a heavily sedated prisoner in Arboria, a secluded, quasi-futuristic commune. Barry (Michael Rogers), a shifty figure prone to exhaustion and especially interested in seeing Elena cry, is her captor. True to generic form, Elena slowly overcomes her drug-induced stupor and escapes, slowly making her way out of the Arborian compound, which looks like it was modeled after the titular ship in Dark Star. Here’s where things get weird: To escape, Elena must make her way past evil masked guards that look like the light-cycle riders from Tron—if the light cycles were piloted by seven-foot-tall creatures with baby heads. A pyramid of light pulses to warn Barry that she’s escaped and a halo of fog gathers over that prism. Then Barry flashes back to that one time when he saw God and his head caught fire. The rest of the plot’s details are debatable.
Beyond the Black Rainbow has a visually dazzling and insanely dense look all its own, something like a trippy grindhouse homage whose familiar images are refracted through a prism of blacklight posters, Jodorowsky films, and even Rob Zombie’s grungy psychotropic sensibility. Cosmatos only really falters at the start and in the end when he tries to set up the boundaries of his film’s world. During the rest of the film, he does his damnedest to expand his viewer’s conscious through a battery of images filmed using sharp color contrasts and soft-focus lenses.
The result is a movie where dark shapes move from out of the shadows into the light with fluid movements that defy the drug-haze pacing. When you see this film in theaters, sit as close to the screen as you can. You’ll get a migraine and your nerves will be frayed by the end, and only then will you be able to decide whether Cosmatos is the next Gaspar Noé or just an over-weaning movie brat that thinks he’s a head.