Beyond the Black Rainbow (Panos Cosmatos, 2010)
Panos Cosmatos is George’s son, and if you remember nothing else about George P. Cosmatos, he’s the guy who directed the immortal Tombstone. Which gives his kid some purt’big shoes to fill. (Unless you remember that George P. was also responsible for some of the eighties’ most brainless action pictures, culminating in the godawful—but ridiculously watchable—Stallone vehicle Cobra.) I’d like to say that Panos’ first feature, Beyond the Black Rainbow, does it. But, well…
Plot: we start off with a TV ad for Arboria, a Utopia-style community founded in the sixties by New Age-y guru Mercurio Arboria (Earthquake!‘s Scott Hylands). Fast-forward a couple of decades, and, well, Arboria is almost deserted. In fact, as far as we can tell, its only inhabitants are Arboria, now in his dotage; Barry Nyle (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford‘s Michael Rogers), who rules the place with an iron fist, and his mother Rosemary (The Exorcism of Emily Rose‘s Marilyn Norry); Barry’s assistant Margo (Mermaid‘s Rondel Reynoldson—I’m assuming Cosmatos’ direction to make-up artist Kyla Rose Tremblay was “make her look as much like a high school lunch lady as possible”); and Elena (The Big Year‘s Eva Allan), a teen about whom we know absolutely nothing throughout the film; while Barry tells her bits about herself, specifically about her parentage, we find out very quickly that Barry is, to put it mildly, the most unreliable of narrators.
You may contend that what’s in that last paragraph isn’t a plot at all, and I’m not going to argue. A plot does eventually appear—in the last seventeen minutes of the film—and Netflix, in their infinite wisdom, chose to highlight that seventeen minutes in its description, which sets up some pretty unreasonable expectations on the part of the viewer. I don’t think Cosmatos, who also wrote the script, was in any way interested in plot, though. I think he was interested in creating a nostalgia piece, an homage to early-seventies sci-fi-psychedelia flicks like THX-1138 and Solyaris, both of which are clear influences on the look, feel, and especially sound of Beyond the Black Rainbow. It’s a very, very beautiful movie, full of bold colors and that sort-of futurist look that seventies sci-fi movies figured the world would have by 1983 (I’m not entirely sure the movie is set specifically in 1983, but the two pieces of recognizable music on the soundtrack, Venom’s “Angel Dust” and SSQ’s “Anonymous”, which plays over the end titles, were both released in 1983, if memory serves [discounting Venom’s early “Angel Dust” demo, which didn’t see the light of day until the nineties]). In this aspect, the movie is simply pitch-perfect. It is an absolutely lovely nostalgia trip for anyone who grew up on that stuff.
But—and this is a big, big “but”—that plotline does creep in at the end, and when the viewer examines that aspect of the film, Cosmatos fails. Miserably. We get seventeen minutes of actual action, and oh my sheep-shearing, the incredible potential contained within those seventeen minutes!—and then the movie just ends. (Hearing SSQ on a movie soundtrack for the first time since, IIRC, 1985 assuaged my frustration, but not nearly enough.) That second bit could have, and should have, easily been as long as the first. The movie would have stretched to Bollywod-length, but who cares? Cosmatos throws us the bones of what could have been a really solid action thriller, and then does nothing with them. I think I actually yelled at the screen when the end credits started rolling, after that admittedly beautiful final shot that tied up no loose ends at all.
It is a film that is well worth watching, but be prepared for endless frustration. ** ½