Dave Ventures Somewhere Over the Black Rainbow


You know what’s even weirder than a double rainbow?  A black rainbow.  I mean, since rainbows are pretty much defined by their rainbow colour scheme, a black rainbow isn’t really a rainbow at all, is it?  More like a black sky-smudge or something.

You know what’s even weirder than a black rainbow?  The new science-fiction film Beyond the Black Rainbow, written and directed by first-time Canadian filmmaker Panos Cosmatos for the relatively tiny budget of about $1 million Canadian dollars.  And boy, does it show.  This film has a tiny cast, no extras, and takes place mainly in one location.  This is minimalism on a scale that makes traditional minimalism look extravagant.   In fact, I expect that Beyond the Black Rainbow could be quite cheaply performed on stage with only a slight effort towards restructuring.

Of course, there’s no reason that a tiny, micro-budgeted indie film can’t shine like, well, a rainbow.  After all, the brilliant sci-fi time-travel masterpiece Primer (2004) was a small, intimate movie made for just $7000, and it was fantastic.  Of course, what Primer had going for it that Beyond the Black Rainbow doesn’t was a fantastic script and really tight direction.  It also had an ingenious concept at its heart that at the same time played completely fair with the audience.

Black Rainbow, on the other hand, has none of those things.  The film barely seems to have a script at all[1], and the direction, editing, and pacing are anything but tight and/or economical.  This film is so slowly paced and plotted that a snail could easily outstrip it.  The tragedy of all of this is that Black Rainbow could probably be a pretty engaging 15-minute short.  Unfortunately, it’s been stretched out to 110 agonizing minutes that I wish I could get back.

One thing that would help this movie a great deal would just be to jettison the dialogue entirely.  Most of this film is dialogue-free, and what little speaking there is does almost nothing to advance what little story there is.  It’s mostly pedantic psycho-philosophic drivel that stops the already plodding quasi-narrative right in its tracks.  Eliminate the talking scenes, and there’s at least some level of forward momentum, torpid though it may be.

There are also pointless scenes that seem to take place in the home of Michael Rogers’ character, a creepy scientist named Barry Nyle (is that name supposed to be a play on Bill Nye [the science guy]?  Michael Rogers kind of looks like Bill Nye’s creepy cousin, but I digress), where he has tiring conversations with his (Wife?  Girlfriend?  Mother?  Sister?  Roommate?  We aren’t given enough information to know[2].).  These scenes add nothing to the movie and are completely superfluous.  All they do is make this already plodding narrative even more interminable.  There’s a reason that movies have deleted scenes; a reasoning that seems to elude Panos Cosmatos.  Warning! Spoiler area! To read click here!  But this scene could have just as easily taken place in the scary institute/cult headquarters that most of the rest of the movie takes place in.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is the worst kind of pretentious science-fiction nonsense.  It seems to be trying to emulate the masterpieces of contemplative science-fiction that characterized much of the genre during the 70’s and early 80’s (it’s no coincidence that the film is set in 1983 and has a throwback synth score[3]).  Cosmatos seems to be striving to channel Kubrick by way of Lynch (or vise-versa), but Rainbow is a failure on this level as well.  Auteurs of the weird like Stanley Kubrick don’t just throw a mess of strange onto the wall to see what sticks; they earn the weirdness through compelling story and characterization.  This is Rainbow’s fatal flaw:  it skips the story and characterization and just serves us weirdness for the sake of weirdness.  Hey, look, there’s a really tall robot with the face of a baby!  Why?  Who knows?  Hey, look, there’s a snarling mutant zombie that shows up in one scene, never mentioned before or after and has no impact on the plot whatsoever!  Why?  Who cares?

Now, I have to admit here that I am making this sound better than it is, because who doesn’t love kooky, off-the-wall weirdness?  And again, if this was an experimental short film (which is what Black Rainbow really is at heart, only stretched out to feature-length), then it might be a bit more compelling.  But Cosmatos makes you slog through an unending stream of exhausting sequences in which nothing really happens in order to get to those isolated moments of weirdness, so that by the time they come, you’re far past caring.

To be fair, I understand that this is a highly divisive film.  A lot of the audience I saw it with really seemed to dig it, and the guys who screened it obviously liked it enough to bring it to St. Louis for this one-time-only premiere.  But no one really had any kind of answer for my criticisms afterwards, either.  As far as I’m concerned, this emperor has no clothes.

In that respect, it reminds me of another naked emperor of summer 2012, Sir Ridley Scott.  But while Prometheus is a beautiful puzzle with a maddening amount of missing pieces, Black Rainbow is a very cool looking puzzle box that seems to be filled with a jumble of pieces from completely different puzzles, as well as an assortment of Legos, Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs, none of which can be fitted together into any type of cohesive whole.

Beyond the Black Rainbow seems to buy into the current trend of presenting something that is mysterious!, while assuming that it is the mystery itself that is compelling, rather than the characters and/or the story.  If there are big ideas at play here, or any deeper meaning to be had, then Cosmatos seems to be playing his cards pretty close to his chest and keeping those ideas to himself.  And quite frankly, that isn’t playing fair with the audience.

For example, how are we expected to care about what is going on if we don’t care about the people in the story?  There is virtually no characterization or development given to Nyle or Elena.  As a result, they are both ciphers; nearly impossible to identify with or empathize with.  And since we can’t relate to them, it’s hard for us to care about what is happening to them.  There isn’t even a clear protagonist. 

It’s possible that this is Cosmatos’ intent; maybe he intends for his audience to be in the positions of being dispassionate observers.  But this doesn’t really work in the storytelling art of the cinema.  We have to be invested in what is going on or else we don’t connect with what we’re seeing.  What is supposed to be dispassionate observation just turns into mind-numbing boredom.

The only thing keeping Beyond the Black Rainbow from being my #1 worst film for 2012 (Blue Like Jazz still occupies that position) is the fact that it’s artfully shot and visually interesting to look at (although Cosmatos seems to be a one-trick pony in terms of the 70’s-80’s visual aesthetic he establishes for the film), and pretty well-acted.  Also, the synthesizer score, while derivative, is nice to listen to, especially the beautiful main theme that plays over the beginning and ending credits.  But these are really the only things that the movie has going for it.  Aside from that, it’s merely a slightly bemusing failure.

[1][1] Cosmatos asserts that the shooting script was actually 86 pages long, but that most of that was long-winded description of everything happening in any given-scene.  One wonders if this could have just been accomplished through story-boarding.  If one were to remove everything but the dialogue, I doubt you would have a script longer than a handful of pages.

[2] According to IMDB, the character Marilyn Norry plays is named “Rosemary Nyle,” but I don’t think we’re ever given her last name during the movie itself (presumably during the end credits I didn’t bother to stick around for, I guess).  Even so, all this tells us is that she’s related to Nyle in some way.  But in what way, who knows (and who cares)?

[3] Which, while pretty nifty, is nonetheless extremely derivative of the synth scores for Phantasm and The Terminator, almost lifting some themes verbatim from both movies.  It’s also pretty evocative of John Carpenter’s 1980’s synth scores.  The one exception is the beautiful and haunting main theme that plays over the opening and closing credits.