Panos Cosmatos’s “Beyond the Black Rainbow”: A sci-fi mystery that’s one of the strangest films of the year

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Next Monday and Tuesday, July 2 and 3, the Trylon Microcinema will be opening writer/director Panos Cosmatos’s debut feature, Beyond the Black Rainbow, and one thing is for certain: there will not be another film screening in town like it. (In fact, there might not be another like it for the rest of 2012.) The film screens as part of the “Trylon Premieres” series, every Monday and Tuesday, of new releases, restored classics, and all the other films in between that otherwise do not open at your local AMC, a Landmark Theater, St. Anthony Main, or the Riverview Theater.

I had some lofty expectations for Cosmatos’s sci-fi thriller once I first heard of it back in 2010 at the Whistler Film Festival (in British Columbia, Canada) and later on as it had its U.S. premiere at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. The mysterious trailer, though, is what really piqued my interest. The film was picked up by Magnet Releasing (a genre label of Magnolia Pictures) and there was a long stretch when I figured the film was doomed for direct-to-DVD status after I didn’t much about it for close to two years. When it was finally announced the film would be opening in May across the U.S., I kept checking to see if the film was going to open in Minneapolis; when I saw it was opening at the Trylon, the long wait was finally over.

So what is Beyond the Black Rainbow about, exactly?

BTBR begins in 1983 with doctor Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands) describing his Arboria Laboratories as “an institute of happiness” with messages being scattered during his presentation almost as a brainwashing mechanism and leaving the viewer confused in a matter of seconds. Shortly after, we learn that a young woman named Elena (Eva Allan) is being kept in a guarded room and being watched over by Dr. Barry Nyle (a very malevolent and stoic Michael Rodgers), who is observing her and using pharmaceuticals to heavily sedate Elena when he goes in to speak with her. The mute patient has been tested on for quite some time; Barry keeps telling her she is not well and he wished she could have seen her mother. There are hints from the beginning of Elena having some type of telepathy and being able to use her powers when she not medicated.

When Barry’s assistant Margo (Rondel Reynoldson) finds some shocking information about what his plans are and have been, Margo becomes expendable to Barry and meets her demise through an interaction with Elena, letting us in on exactly what Elena is capable of. Throughout all of his observations, Barry is able to control Elena’s mind through the power of a white prism and red fog in a secret laboratory in their secret compound. This is only the first half of BTBR as it goes further down the rabbit hole of mystery and metaphysical science experiments.

The slow pace of the film is intentional, absorbing us in a setting both retro and futuristic and leaving us wondering when we will finally start getting some answers to many of our questions. It is not until close to 45 minutes in when Cosmatos flips the switch on his narrative progression and suddenly, BTBR takes us deeper into the past of Dr. Nyle and Dr. Arboria—giving us some idea of what is really going on at Arboria Laboratories with a stunning black-and-white flashback sequence worth seeing on the big screen. The flashback sequence is beautifully constructed, frightening, and sensual; the real stars of BTBR are cinematographer Norm Li and production designer Bob Bottieri, who create a unique world throughout the film and give Cosmatos a perfect storm of clarity amid chaos, until a laughable ending of epic proportions, which will leave you again asking more questions without much explanation.

If this sounds weird, it most certainly is and will lead to endless discussion of what is really happening. Cosmatos (the son of director George Cosmatos, best known for directing Rambo: First Blood Part II and the western Tombstone) is a director capable of pulling us into his enigmatic world despite a mundane and often stale script. Cosmatos’s influences are auteur directors of the past 50 years including David Lynch (Eraserhead), David Cronenberg (Scanners), Stanley Kubrick (2001), early Ridley Scott films (Alien, Blade Runner), and Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker, Solaris). Beyond the Black Rainbow leaves the viewer amazed and perplexed.