There is a certain breed of film that’s never sat well with me: those that value an abstract declaration of style over an emotionally compelling story. Not that every movie has to be flat and melodramatic, but when a film gets lost in its own aesthetic and neglects to craft an interesting story and characters, the audience is ultimately kept at arm’s length throughout. “Beyond the Black Rainbow” is, unfortunately, one of these films. It throws primary colors and bizarre imagery at the audience to distract them from the fact that there’s not a moment in the whole film where they care what happens to the two central characters.
The shady Dr. Nyle (Michael Rogers) and his test subject/hostage Elena (Eva Allen) are introduced via a long series of scenes where Nyle repeatedly grills Elena while an overbearing synth score booms ominously in the background. Eventually, we learn that Elena is special. She starts to realize that as well, scheming to escape from the facility where she’s being held.
“Beyond the Black Rainbow” has a few solid ideas under its hood, the best of which is probably setting the film in the Reagan era, but the film constantly seems more interested in ambiance and atmosphere. Writer-director Panos Cosmatos, making his feature debut, has created a technical marvel. The film’s sets are perfect for their period setting, and the film is packed with vivid, haunting imagery. Jeremy Schmidt’s evocative score, which occasionally suffers from the imagery it’s paired with, consistently stands out as the film’s brightest asset.
Despite the fascinating visual feast Cosmatos serves up, his narrative is nonexistent, too often bending to the terms of his aesthetic (especially in a long, hyper-contrasted flashback that turns the film silly). His characters are thin personifications of sci-fi archetypes, their interactions sterile and unrevealing. “Beyond the Black Rainbow” manages to build tension in one or two moments, but massively fumbles the few payoffs its narrative holds, especially with a fascinatingly oblique final showdown that barely even registers.
Films like “Beyond the Black Rainbow” have their place in cinema, and there’s no doubt that this chilly, gorgeously designed aesthetic will have its fans. Panos Cosmatos has interesting things to say, and hopefully his next film will be able to articulate a bit better than this one. Unfortunately, with his debut, he’s failed to connect with his audience on any level. For that reason, “Beyond the Black Rainbow” is an ambitious, visually stunning glass of lukewarm water.