About ten minutes into Beyond the Black Rainbow, I had two thoughts go running through my mind:
Jesus Christ, I’m about to have a seizure.
That is the scariest looking wig I’ve seen on a dude in a very long time.
Seriously, though, this one was more than a little messed up. It was long and felt a bit like being stuck in a therapy session where no one wants to really talk, or, worse yet, a holiday dinner where you know no one and time seems to stop moving. Despite all of this, I did manage to take away something in terms of the theme. Writer/director Panos Cosmatos seems to be making a pretty scathing indictment of the spirituality embraced by the New Age crowd, particularly how it leads to destruction and hypocrisy if left unchecked.
|About as joyful as the title suggests.|
Mixed in amongst the bright color palette of blue, white, orange and red, we get a story centered around the quest for a type of enlightenment. That’s really the purpose of Dr. Mercurio Arboria, who founded the Arboria Institute as a way to help others find happiness, as well as “yourself.” The introduction is performed as an advertisement for the institute, which struck me as a bit of the ol’ “give us your money and we’ll give you a nice cup of Kool Aid” treatment (a certain entertainment-laden cult shall remain nameless). This initial feeling is reinforced later on, when we see Nyle (Michael Rogers) take drugs and ritualistically enter the pool of black liquid. Arboria tells Nyle to “[b]ring home the mother load, Barry.” Ah, Arboria. Using his devoted student for the experiment rather than himself. How selfless, how intrepid. It’s not surprising that this venture is corrupted given the prodding of the student into the black goo. This is self-preservation married perversely with progress: in order to protect oneself from harm, send your disciple in to do the dirty work. If it succeeds, then you have led someone to the right path and can claim glory for leading the lost to his or her salvation; if it fails, someone else takes the consequences while you get to remain on your quest, unscathed. Throw in that Arboria appears to be batshit bonkers, and that’s a pretty harsh statement against your spiritual leaders.
What happens after this point is a kaledoscopic journey for our friend Nyle through a hellish landscape that culminates in madness and murder. We get beautiful purples and blues aplenty (sidenote: Cosmatos has a command of color that he wields with expertise), but Nyle’s skin looks like it’s burning off in large holes as his eye sockets catch fire. This is a really bad trip, and when Nyle emerges, he coughs up the fluid in such a fashion that the stark white background looks like a Rorschach test (itself commentary on Nyle’s mental state). That he saw terrible things seems to reflect upon his broken, imperfect subconscious, and he acts upon those dark impulses when he approaches and kills the cowering Anna. Let’s unpack that one for a moment: a man who lusts after his boss’s wife undergoes an experiment, gets in touch with his darkside to the point where his outside – covered in black, menacing and primal – reflects his internal machinations, and his first impulse is to nuzzle the woman’s neck and tear her throat out. This combines a repressed sexual dark side with a release of the Id. It suggests that we all have this in us; it’s just a psychotropic experience away. Not exactly what Arboria was intending, but again, if you’re going to promise someone the true self, sometimes, you don’t get the sweet side filled with rainbows, innocence and kittens. And yet, Arboria inflicts this same black liquid goo submersion treatment on his infant daughter. He completely glosses over the fact that his wife was murdered by explaining it away as her being “reabsorb[ed] into the cycle of life.” This screams that a parent is willing to subject his child to potential danger and continuing madness in the name of his unproven ideals. That, my friends, is a deep criticism of the passing down of Baby Boomer logic to the next generation: the ideals matter at all costs, eclipsing even the protection of your genetic lineage. Arboria doesn’t care about the yielding of his last experiment, which cost him his wife’s life and the sanity of his assistant. It does not fit the schema of his goals, and therefore, he must continue to try until he finds a way in which enlightenment can be reached. That Arboria does not travel this path himself means that he’s still searching for his formula before he is willing to try it himself, making everyone else – including his child, which instinct tells us you should be willing to defend in order to pass on your genes – expendable. This effectively calls the father a selfish figure with little to no regard for his offspring’s safety. Arboria is not thinking about the welfare of his daughter, who represents the future; he’s thinking about how to best go about a course of action in order to achieve the full benefit for himself. This is the defeat of altruism and progress in the name of spiritual greed.
|Tell me what you see on the card.|
By some fluke – possibly the fact that she was not old enough to have developed a dark side – Elena (Eva Allen) does indeed survive unscathed, and develops psychic powers that Nyle feels must be controlled. The key element is the notion of control, which Nyle attempts to exert with disastrous results. Control mechanisms throughout this film range from the mild (wigs and contacts) to the extreme (glowing pyramids, Sentionauts, mutants with filed-down teeth). This control either directly applies or implies physical harm to Elena, meaning that his need to control her causes her at least some type of pain. Nyle doesn’t just stop at her: he has to control his own life, from his appearance to his remaining psychic anguish. Nyle finally shakes off the control over his façade when he strips himself of his wig and contacts, exposing the lasting effects of the experimentation to gain enlightenment and psychic abilities. While he is waging his own battle to embrace his true self (note: how depressing is it to realize that the true self is bald, has freaky eyes and crushes skulls like bubble wrap?), Elena makes a bid for freedom by battling air shafts, Sentionauts and a mutant that licks the glass after it tries to eat her – if this is a metaphor for reality and the working world, then I’m going to need a good, stiff drink. Elena, conversely, gets to finally taste the outside once control is removed, appreciating the feel of mud of her feet, the night sky and the visual of a bug on a blade of grass; as an escapee, she gets to experience these things presumably for the first time, and finds an easy rest. Nyle, on the other hand, kills to heshers, particularly after making the assumption that one of them has had sex with Elena. This demonstrates a need to control the sexual activity of the teenage girl. The implications of this are fairly disturbing: in this light, he’s expressing a common form of jealousy concerning a potential partner. Which, yeah… you can’t raise your partner – it doesn’t work that way. I’m all for age differences, but the overtones to this one take it a bit too far into squicky territory. Anywho, Elena does not respond positively to Nyle’s attempts to control her, and instead chooses to leave him rooted to the ground, which ultimately kills him. In his quest to demonstrate psychic powers, he ultimately dies while trying to control the actions of a much-younger female love interest that could, in theory, pass for his daughter. In a sense, her escape from him is very much the teenage rebellion all teenage girls face, minus the whole father-figure-wants-to-fuck-you motif.
|This is an extreme to keep her from leaving the house after curfew.|
Ultimately, Beyond the Black Rainbow manages to criticize the notions of control while contrasting the hypocrisy of spiritual progress. It takes the good intention of expanding the mind and delves down into darker territory: the quest for control over others. Ideals getting lost in favor of power is not a new theme, but this one really went after it with full force. You may like the movie, or you may not, but you have to admit, this one is highly critical of lost message and overt control.