Once in a while, with about the same regularity as new Blizzard games, Netflix comes through. After randomly hearing about an indie sci-fi/horror called Beyond the Black Rainbow and seeing some screenshots full of funky lighting and retro-80s futurism, my interest was piqued and I resolved to be all over this shit like stink on a dead monkey. But imagine my surprise when it turned out that I “wouldn’t” have to risk the wrath of Canada’s new policy of toothless finger-wagging at pirates to see it, because Netflix Canada for once had exactly what I was looking for, WHEN I was looking for it. It’s just a shame that this momentous occasion left me with an only somewhat satisfying movie, a film that starts off as a beautifully shot, stylistically rich sci-fi head-scratcher, but ends up with a disappointing let-down of a climax.
The film centers on Elena, a near-comatose young girl with psychic powers being kept in a secret facility seemingly built as part of some kind of New Age cult started by Elena’s father. Elena’s only real contact is with Barry Nyle, a cult member and Elena’s therapist, who spends most of their scenes together perving on her something fierce. Over the course of the film, we learn more about Barry and Elena’s pasts, or at least are given some hints at them, as Barry slowly goes insane and Elena slowly comes out of her shell.
Beyond the Black Rainbow does something I always respect in a movie, which is, essentially, dropping us into the plot with almost nothing in the way of exposition or set-up, and demanding that the audience think about what they’re seeing and suss out what’s going on and who everyone is. A lot like Drug War or Upstream Color, Black Rainbow really refuses to hold the audience’s hand, which, if we’re being honest, can be a sign of either respect for the audience, or a sign that the film deems itself too good to explain itself – see also Love. Black Rainbow for the most part seems to fall in the good part of the spectrum, and I never quite got the sense that the movie was being obtuse for the sake of being obtuse, though it comes close here and there. But make no mistake, you’re gonna have to figure some stuff out on your own.
Black Rainbow‘s strongest asset is by far its visuals, which bask in 80s nostalgia, but not in a Manborg, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon way. Instead it’s as if it’s trying to come off like some artsy 80s sci-fi experiment that time forgot. The art design is all beautifully realized retro-futurism, all cold blank surfaces and Daft Punk looking robots. The lighting drenches the actors in seas of color, ominous reds and washed-out blues, making it feel almost like some especially funky Italian number at times. If there’s one thing that really breaks the retro aesthetic of the film it’s that underneath all that grain it’s still quite clear that it was shot in HD, which can give the intense grain that tacked-on feeling of an Instagram filter at times, with all the detail clashing with the attempt at aging the look of the film.
All the actors perform well, with Michael Rogers as Barry getting just the right mix of creepy and intruiging, making for one of those rare villains that you want to learn more about at the same time that you want to slap a restraining order on the creepy bastard. Eva Bourne is understated as strong as Elena, getting across her character’s confusion and terror at… well, basically everything, despite having maybe five lines max in the whole movie.
But then the ending comes along. Oh, the fucking ending of this movie, Jesus tapdancing Christ, the ending. I’m not gonna spoil it, but at around the 90 minute mark, those stylistic elements that served as the ace in the hole for the movie drop away and the plot takes a severe left turn, briefly becoming some kind of weird slasher movie for one scene before concluding on the most ridiculously anticlimactic note I could imagine. I don’t think I ever thought I’d see the final confrontation of a film play out so incredibly mundanely, and while I wasn’t expecting some huge Dark City style psychic battle, but I sure as shit wasn’t expecting… that. Surely the film’s writer/director, Panos Cosmatos knew that the ending would leave most audiences wanting, but if there’s some profundity or meaning in it, I really don’t see it. For my part, all it does is leave the movie with a really, really good first 90 minutes, and an ending so brutally anticlimactic that it almost cancels out my enjoyment of the rest of the thing. Maybe it was thought that no ending could possibly live up to the atmosphere, style and buildup of everything that came before, so the idea was to just commit to ending things by basically trolling the audience. If that’s the case, I can almost respect the film for its massive cajones, though I wish that what was otherwise a seriously good movie didn’t have to get thrown under the bus in the process.
If you were to find a suitable enough spot to suddenly cut to black around 90 minutes into Beyond the Black Rainbow, ending on an ambiguous note rather than a bafflingly dull one, this might be one of the more interesting indie genre movies to come out in recent memory. But whether or not it’s intentional, the anticlimactic finale mostly succeeds in dragging down the film as a whole, ending on a sour, disappointing note, and it’s that note that will stick in my memory the strongest when I think back on the film.