It is 1983, and the quest for inner peace through external means has moved away from illicit, hallucinatory highs toward government-approved, prescription mood suppressants following an ephemeral flirtation with New Age mysticism. Self-purportedly at the forefront of this awkward cultural transition is The Arboria Institute.
The beautiful, immersive, unsettling Beyond the Black Rainbow sets its tone with a title indicating—with a wink—that we are on the cusp of 1984. Then, a video tape plays.
The delightfully named Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands) describes the treatment center that bears his name and promises “a new, better, happier you” through a combination of “neuropsychology and therapeutic technologies.” A team of herbalists, naturopaths and healers, explains Dr. Arboria, will utilize “benign pharmacology, sensory therapy and energy sculpting” to help patients achieve The Arboria Institute’s slogan: “Serenity through technology.”
The Arboria Institute, of course, is not the idealistic path to enlightenment the good doctor sells. In fact, Dr. Arboria is initially nowhere to be found in The Arboria Institute, which seems to be run by Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers, oozing creepiness in a great bad-guy performance) and contain a single patient, a young woman named Elena (Eva Allen), who exists largely in a pharmaceutical stupor.
But if The Arboria Institute is not what it first seems, neither is Elena. And part of the joy of experiencing Beyond the Black Rainbow is the way in which Panos Cosmatos, the film’s writer and director, uses brazen visual concepts to advance the narrative and to suggest that the methods and medications intended to liberate us instead force us to remit our free will.
The story spans a generational shift from experimentation and self-exploration to repression and control. In a flashback to 1966, Dr. Arboria, an LSD enthusiast, proclaims the infant Elena the “dawning of a new era for the human race and the human soul” after a violent birth. Dr. Nyle, on the other hand, has the mother of bad trips, which Cosmatos brings to imaginative, chilling life.
In the present of 1983, Dr. Arboria is a drug-addled, delusional hermit withering away in the depths of his own commune. Dr. Nyle, meanwhile, has grown paranoid and obsessive, and has turned to popping pills; his wife disgusts him by meditating, smoking marijuana and keeping Dr. Arboria’s book Be Your Self close at hand.
Dr. Nyle prefers the sanctuary of The Arboria Institute, where Cosmatos confines much of the action and submerges viewers in a narcosis-like state. Cosmatos uses close-ups and crossfades—often with conflicting directional movements in slow motion—and deep reds to sustain disorientation and a sense of clinical dread.
A primary ingredient in Beyond the Black Rainbow’s color palette, the red becomes so oppressive that a burst of fluorescent light in the film’s climactic scene comes as a relief. The mood is enhanced by Norm Li’s sumptuous cinematography, a visual aesthetic that shares elements with Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and an unnerving score by Jeremy Schmidt.
Though Beyond the Black Rainbow leaves questions (What is the subject of the phone call Dr. Nyle receives? Who—or what—are the Sentionauts? How seriously should we take any of this given the image and quote that follow the credits?), it resolves itself satisfactorily on its own terms. Dismissed by the few critics who reviewed it during its limited festival and theatrical run as slow, impenetrable and aggressively trippy, Beyond the Black Rainbow is languorous in its pace but invigorating in its cinematic effect.
The insinuating nature of this singular science-fiction/horror concoction lends impact to its conclusion. Escape awaits Elena, but she must find her way alone. And consider the film’s final shots. Is reality a trap or the ultimate high?