Beyond The Black Rainbow: AFI Fest Review

A visually inventive but narratively bereft first feature.

Interesting for its use of effects and sound, the sci-fi fantasy loses the plot in this first feature.

A strangely warped sci-fi fantasy seemingly unearthed from decades ago, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a singular, vividly imaginative debut feature from Canadian writer-director Panos Cosmatos. With a likely 2012 theatrical date from Magnet Releasing, the film is surely destined for further late-night festival screenings and substance-enhanced home viewing in ancillary, but box office potential is as uncertain as the film’s obscure plot.

Initially set in 1983, a clever, retro-styled TV ad introduces Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands), the vaguely creepy research director of the Arboria Institute, which supposedly focuses on helping people achieve “serenity through technology” via naturopathic pharmaceuticals and emotional therapy. Shifting to 1989, the narrative catches up with Dr. Barry Nyle (Barry Nyle), a sinister-looking clinician at the isolated, mostly deserted institute who is treating Elena (Eva Allan), a near-catatonic young woman who appears to be under the influence of some serious medication.

His one-sided interviews elicit little more than eye blinks from Elena, who moves like a somnambulist around her cell-like room. When Nyle returns to his darkened, claustrophobic home, he clashes with his wife Rosemary (Marilyn Norry), another apparently substance-reliant resident of the institute.

STORY: AFI Fest: The 8 Films on Everyone's Radar

As Nyle’s increasingly invasive questioning provokes Elena to occasional, delicate tears, it becomes apparent that she may well be his captive, tended and monitored by a grim nurse (Rondel Reynoldson). The further disclosure that Elena is Arboria’s daughter adds additional tension, particularly since her elderly father is a psychotropic drug-dependent patient under Nyle’s care – or perhaps incarceration. Nyle’s own escalating drug use also appears to be pushing his paranoia to a tipping point, reinforced by Reagan-era Cold War fearmongering in the media.

Cosmatos (whose father was director George Cosmatos) underpins his ambiguous, bare-bones narrative with impressively atmospheric sound design and frequent barrages of hallucinogenic camera and visual effects. The cumulative impression is alternately hypnotic, disorienting and vaguely shocking, with revelations or implications of paranormal psychosis, murder and alien visitation. So when Elena must decide whether to seize the chance to make bid for freedom, the stakes are surprisingly higher than might be expected.

EXCLUSIVE: Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson's 'Adventures of Tintin' to Close Out AFI Fest

Despite a proliferation of cryptic imagery and frequently impenetrable plot developments, Cosmatos keeps the film consistently watchable primarily through a prodigious command of sound design and visual style, dominated by grainy, densely saturated 35mm cinematography. Lighting and set design elements recalling 2001: A Space Odyssey, THX 1138 and any number of dystopic sci-fi films from the past four decades enhance the sense of dislocation and unease. A jarring tonal shift toward more conventional, explicit suspense late in the film is less effective however, diminishing the overall impact.

Supporting elements are all of a piece, with special effects, production design, lighting, cinematography and an ominously droning score by Sinoia Caves’ Jeremy Schmidt artfully crafted to enhance the film’s immersive experience.

Venue: AFI Fest

Production company: Chromewood Productions 
Cast: Michael Rodgers, Eva Allan, Scott Hylands, Marilyn Norry, Rondel Reynoldson 
Director/screenwriter: Panos Cosmatos 
Producers: Oliver Linsley, Christya Nordstokke
Director of photography: Norm Li 
Music: Sinoia Caves 
Production designer: Bob Bottieri 
Editor: Nicholas Shepard

No Rating, 110 minutes