Although the movie Beyond the Black Rainbow (written and directed by Panos Cosmatos of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) was first released a year and a half earlier, I didn't see it until late in summer 2012, only about a month before it was scheduled to be released on DVD and Blu‑ray. (A possible partial antecedent is the Canadian science fiction psychological horror film Cube [co-written and directed by Vincenzo Natali], although terms like slow, Kubrikesque, and philosophical probably apply much more to this movie than they do to Cube.)
I found this movie particularly intriguing, and came to suspect it was really quite a bit deeper than just the light and sound show it first appeared to be. Unfortunately I found all discussions of what this movie might mean or what its storyline might be to be horribly and pitifully incomplete and nonsensical. So my only option was to try to figure it out for myself. In the end my results were too large to post in a forum such as IMDb, so instead I'm presenting them here.
Usually with a movie the questions what's it mean? and what's the storyline? have the same answer (or at least generously overlapping answers), which is generally presented as the synopsis. But with this movie, what's it mean? and what's the storyline clearly have separate answers (which one should be the synopsis?-), so I've addressed both.
Hopefully you've seen the movie at least once before coming here. If not, to avoid unwanted surprises, quite a bit of the text here is initially invisible. If you really want to read something, just point at the text area and it will become visible. (Point with your mouse or your finger touch or whatever your computer uses, hovering over or perhaps clicking on the hidden text.)
If you wish, you can skip directly to the part of this webpage that interests you:
(This is mostly my own one-person effort; in any case it's certain that I'm responsible for any errors. There are gaps where I still don't understand the meaning of some images, alternative explanations, and most likely some flat-out mistakes of interpretation. Nevertheless I happen to think this is the best explication of the story/plot/action available on the Internet at this time ...but I realize not everyone will agree. As I myself don't know much about Gnosticism, please refer detailed questions about Gnostic philosophers and quotations and stories to Daniel M. in Montreal . Information about Kabbalah was contributed by Michael K.)
Here are several of the overlapping options for what it's about? (you will probably choose more than one at the same time):
A light and sound show, what some reviewers call the surface of the movie. Kind of like a greatly extended music video, very well done, to the point it's acclaimed as demonstrating a new artistic vocabulary. The official description fever dream and the fan description midnight movie seem to fit here. Especially prominent image components are eyes, triangles, reflections, and clouds. Maybe the very last thing we see is a framing device for such a weird dream. This option may work best on the initial viewing, as after a while you may begin to sense some sort of method behind the madness.
For example, the sound track seems at first to be just a continuous synthesizer composition. But after a while you realize it's playing the usual role of a movie soundtrack, with the synthesizer reproducing the sounds of all the different pieces of equipment and portraying the emotional states of the characters. The repeated loud low frequency thrumming is the pyramid/crystal psychic energy field, and the sudden disappearances of that sound indicate the camera has moved into a location away from the equipment, while the gentle fadeaway of that sound indicates either that the pyramid/crystal isn't relevant to that paricular scene or that it's being overcome and so is not having much effect at that moment.
A mystical parable —free of all conventional rational expectations to make sense— whose full understanding is available only to the enlightened. For example, interpreting everything as simply hypnosis seems to fall here.
A homage to a great many authors and directors and films. There are easily thirty fairly direct references to artistic works, and probably a whole lot more. Those commonly mentioned include: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris (the original Tarkovsky one), Stalker, Scanner, The Andromeda Strain, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Altered States, TRON (the first one), Naked Lunch (the book), Soylent Green, and THX 1138. (There are also some references to some deservedly really obscure movies, such as Mr. Stitch.) Although actually current production techniques must have been used, there's virtually nothing in the style of the movie to suggest it was created after 1979.
A parable showing that very different efforts by humans to advance the species spiritually are all equally ineffective. The first attempt at new age, from the beats into the 60's with mind altering drugs, was a complete failure (or worse), resulting in addiction and madness despite intentions. Barry was crippled by sexual fantasies that were unmasked back then during a drug experience -- yet many years later he still had sexual fantasies that still crippled him. If you read the Ronald Reagan clip as a straight-ahead description of reality, mankind is about to blow each others brains out with atomic missiles. If on the other hand you read that clip as an ironic comment, 80's society tried so hard to draw a bright dividing line between good and evil that it became a weird place to live. And Elena's escape from Arboria is likely a pyrrhic victory that won't lead to any significant advance.
A parable showing that too much separation from nature is a leading indicator of something wrong. Dr. Arboria is proud of not only his psychic institute but also his award winning gardens. But the reality is those gardens are indoor human creations, and outdoor semi-chaotic nature is strictly excluded. There could hardly be a bigger contrast than between the randomness of a natural setting and the antiseptic, geometric, reflective surfaces of the Arboria Institute building. Dr. Arboria's views of nature come from watching videos rather than directly viewing the real thing. Dr. Arboria never sees the stars in the sky at night (something Elena sees). Rosemary has a garden visible less than two feet from her couch ...but the garden is on the other side of a glass, and has obviously been designed to fit in with the decor.
A parable illustrating that nothing really changes. Barry never fully overcomes the results of a bad trip nearly two decades ago. Surmounting significant difficulties. Elena has escaped from the social context of Arboria and the technology of the pyramid/crystal that kept her there. But it's strongly suggested she'll be imprisoned all over again in the social context of Suburia and kept there by the technology of the TV. She's just exchanged one prison for another; nothing has really changed. The director has said the quotation (No matter where you go, there you are. - B. Banzai) and the last image summarize the meaning of the whole movie. Perhaps this is the last image, and perhaps this is what the director meant.
The vacuity and emptiness of TV and TV watchers. Every character associated with the Arboria Institute is shown looking at a TV screen at some point. The TVs are generally showing innocuous or irrelevant material (except the Ronald Reagan speech about the Soviet Union:-), and sometimes just between-channel snow (something youger viewers may be unfamiliar with, as digital TV goes black rather than showing random black-and-white dots when there's no signal). The ending suggests the escaped Elena will shortly be swallowed up by TV.
The core elements of a slasher/horror film, disguised as something else. It's relatively well disguised - the film is a genre-bender with aspects from more than one genre, and the slasher/horror elements don't become too noticeable until the second half. In fact, one might even remain completely oblivious to the slasher/horror aspect, realizing only that there was violence so sadistic and extreme as to cause a recoil a couple of times. But think about it deeply: there's an innocent beautiful girl, a sex-obsessed madman, exploding brains, unpredictable telekinesis, a large showy weapon, a zombie-like creature, unnatural colored eyes, and a few spectacularly gruesome and senseless mutilations and murders, which taken together seems enough for membership in the slasher/horror genre. In any case though, it's clearly not just a slasher/horror flick.
An epic battle between good and evil in a dystopia. The good is Elena, naive and in white. The bad is Barry, highly knowledgeable and in red. And the dystopia is the Arboria Institute. The Ronald Reagan clip underscores the Manichean view of the world.
A concrete portrayal of some of the core of gnostic philosophy. Particular to the gnostic interpretation here are the concept of a syzygy and the legend of Sophia. Elena/Sophia, the goddess of wisdom, journeys downward toward what appears to be the Father's light, but winds up being trapped in the chaos. She is held captive and tormented by the evil archon/demiurge. Barry is the demiurge, the creator god, also the author of all evil. He subverts the Father, then tries to complete his assertion of demiurgic control, which first requires the critical catalyst of integrating the feminine. This he hopes to do by forming a couple conjunction (syzygy, also see Jung) with Elena/Sophia. The setting of the Arboria Institute itself is a sort of garden of Eden.
Another interpretation from gnosticism (there are many story variations with many possible interpretations): Barry needs Elena/Sophia's essence in order to survive; he is a psychic vampire. As the demonic demiurge, he hopes to keep Elena/Sophia as Queen of the Arboria Underworld (i.e. trapped in matter). His desperation is especially visible at the end of the film.
A shout-out (or more?-) to kabbalah, in the form of numeric/alphabetic or otherwise coded symbolic imagery. The symbology could simply stand alone, or it could be a symptom of the pursuit of grand scale mythopoeia. (In Kabbalah the translation back and forth between letters and numbers uses a system called Gematria. Quite a bit of further information can be found online.) Several well-known fantasy and mystery writers have hidden gematria in their stories. In fact the practice, which is often associated with the Gnosticism referred to above, seems to be fairly widespread in artistic circles. Numbers of interest include (therapy session number) 1138 and 466 (days in Barry's diary). Letters of interest include Barry and Arboria. Interpretations of Nurse Margo at an intersection of Kabbalah and Christianity are also possible.
A parable illustrating you can't just keep your feelings inside yourself forever - sooner or later those feelings will come out no matter what you do. Barry was injured both psychologically and physically by the bad trip, and has apparently been angry about his life being wrecked ever since. Yet he's managed to appear fairly normal for many years. He figured out how to look like a typical human despite his injuries, and has done such a good job keeping his appliances secret that very few are even aware they exist, and nobody remembers clearly what he looks like without them. He's kept up with his job at the Arboria Institute, seemingly successfully managing the place, and even hiring at least one new person. He's managed (albeit rather weirdly:-) to shepherd Elena through childhood and early adolescence. But he can't keep up the sham indefinitely. Eventually all the memories come flooding back, a vivid flashback overtakes him, and he begins to act out his insanity (including getting revenge) in the real world.
My own explication of the storyline is based on several viewings, notes taken inside the theater, many reviews and messages (including one by a person who was able to freeze-frame before a DVD was generally available, and another by an academic authority on ancient philosophies), director interviews, close attention to the credits, and even the comments on a Youtube posting about mysterious audio. In the end, my answers are not tricky nor even extraordinary; in fact, reviewing the result my own reaction is Well duh!?. More interesting than the storyline itself is the question of why it was so hard to figure out that not even one source anywhere on the Internet seems to get most of it.
(The vague —and perhaps even misleading— official synopsis doesn't help understand the storyline, and may have actually contributed to its mystery. Also, many of the images are so stylized they can be tricky to identify and understand, which probably further contributes to the mystery of the storyline.)
(This explanation largely restricts itself to only those events that forward the story line and that we actually see. The many more details and implications are left to viewers.)
Apparently so many viewers had so much trouble following this movie that the current DVD version has been modified a little from the original theatrical version. As these notes refer to the earlier version, it's possible there will be some small mismatches between these notes and what you now see.
The movie glories in ambiguity, allowing more than one interpretation of almost everything. Three examples: i] While Elena is probably Dr. Arboria's daughter, there's nothing in the images nor dialog nor credits to make this certain; there's enough wiggle room to cast Dr. Nyle as her father instead. (The ambiguity about Elena's parentage was particularly true in the earlier version.) ii] It's never made entirely clear whether Rosemary is Dr. Nyle's cousin or sister (or wife). And iii] Barry's sniffing of Elena's bed could be either because he now has a hyper sense of smell (an uncommon but known occasional side effect of drug trips), or because he's behaving like an uncouth lecherous dirty old man.
The faux infomercial at the beginning tells us a few significant things: The Arboria Institute has been around for many years; Dr. Barry Nyle was one of the original inner circle and has occupied the position of head of research for all that time, the initial goals of the Arboria Institute were quite lofty, and the attitude toward psychotropic drugs was optimistic and careless. (The portrayals of 60's attitudes toward both psychotropic drugs and what was then called pyramid power might be interpreted as black humor.)
The backstory is presented by the 1966 flashback. These images are particularly difficult to interpret, because they're so brief, because they're so highly stylized and symbolized, and becase they're so heavily manipulated graphically it's difficult to even identify people and things (especially in the earlier version). One interpretation is that Dr. Mercurio Arboria and his wife Anna had conceived a baby under some psychic influence (probably the psychic energy field generated by the pyramid/crystal). Dr. Barry Nyle has a very close friendship with Dr. Arboria's wife Anna. Barry ingested some serious psychotropic drugs to go on a big trip (Dr. Arboria encouraged him to bring back the mother lode). That trip was symbolized by him submerging himself into, then climbing back out of, some kind of black goo. (The black goo is symbolic of the overwhelming, immersive experience. The literal drug is the liquid we see Dr. Nyle squeeze from a bottle onto his tongue.)
That trip didn't go well; Dr. Nyle was injured both psychologically and physically. He wore a bandage over most of his upper face (excepting one eye) after getting completely free of the black goo. Most of the physical wounds healed, he used appliances to cover the remaining visible ones (the loss of all his hair and the change to reptilian eyes), and ignored a few (such as an apparent new hyper sense of smell) that weren't visible. Although he for many years kept his feelings to himself (or even denied them entirely), it appears at some level he deeply regretted the death of Anna Arboria, and blamed Dr. Arboria for the disaster. Possibly Dr. Nyle's bad drug trip either made him open to or exposed his shadow side (loving war, demanding animal and human sacrifice, rejoicing in death, and condoning slavery including sexual).
(Although not at all central to the plot of the movie, it appears the bad trip ended the original optimistic outlook and consumer relevance of the Arboria Institute. It seems the Arboria Institute's funding had already been assured though, and it has been able to coast for more than a decade and a half. Now the Arboria Institute apparently has no clients at all, and no thought of obtaining any.)
While coming out of the drug trip, Barry used his closeness with Anna to make sexual advances toward her as she monitored his trip. She made it clear the sexual advances weren't welcome; he in turn murdered her by injuring her neck (accidentally? intentionally? still in a drug-induced stupor?). Dr. Arboria justified the loss of his wife as the cost of a spiritual advance. (The wound was small and barely visible, and Dr. Arboria didn't actually see the murder in progress, so he was probably more prone to accept casual explanations.) In earlier versions, to save its life, the baby was delivered from the dead woman's body immediately, then proclaimed some sort of star child by Dr. Arboria. In later versions of the movie the ultra-high-contrast hard-to-interpret delivery images have been excised and replaced with a much plainer and easier to interpret image of Dr. Arboria holding the baby and unmistakably calling her Elena.
(An alternate interpretation —which made more sense with the extreme ambiguity of the earlier images— is that Barry raped Anna, who then suffered a miscarriage, then finally much later gave birth to another daughter by Mercurio.) In any case, it appears the original scene was so often so badly misunderstood that it was significantly modified.
The main story is set in 1983 (one year before 1984:-). Nurse Margo —who apparently has no knowledge of the bad trip years ago— provides Elena's daily care. (We see Nurse Margo suffering a nosebleed while escorting Elena to a session with Dr. Nyle and suspecting Elena somehow caused it.) There are quite a few images of televisions, particularly in Elena's room, and Elena is obviously attracted to them. These images don't appear to be particularly relevant at the moment they're first viewed, but take on considerably more significance in hindsight.
We see Barry beginning the first therapy session with Elena we're privy to. Elena —who has lived inside the Institute her entire life, and is now 16— is generally unresponsive, and has been completely emotionally unresponsive for the past 466 days (about 15 months!). Some of Dr. Nyle's concerns are clearly therapeutically legitimate (if unusual) - in particular he seeks advice on how best to handle an adolescent who has telekinetic powers but not the emotional maturity to always use them wisely. (Elena's psychic powers may be genetically endowed, or may result from drugs; alternatively they may be the outcome of sensory deprivation ...spending all those years thinking, because there was no other outlet for the mind.) But with some encouragement from Dr. Nyle, Elena begins to rouse on this particular day. Elena is suppressed by the psychic energy field generated by the pyramid/crystal, so much so that she appears to be heavily sedated.
Upon arriving at home that night, Barry has a desultory conversation with Rosemary. She's been reading Dr. Arboria's book, and she knows of (but doesn't seem to have grasped the full implications of) the bad trip years ago. In the second therapy session, Barry indirectly gives Elena a picture of her mother. (Elena lives in a very spare room, furnished with only a sleeping platform. A small TV screen is embedded in one of the walls, and Elena apparently changes channels telepathically, as it has no visible control knobs. She finds the photo stuck to the bottom of her sleeping platform. The photograph is a very poor portrait, actually looking more like a scene from either the flashback or some sort of creation myth than a conventional picture of a person.) Elena rouses further. After the session, Elena psychically senses her father's heartbeat and presence in the building, illustrated as her hearing him through the walls. In the third session Elena telepathically communicates to Barry that she wants to see her father, but he refuses at the moment. By now her behavior is most definitely emotionally responsive.
An alternate interpretation of these events is these conversations aren't so much therapy sessions, as negotiations between Barry and Elena. Barry's goal is to get Elena to form a syzygy with him. Thus he tries to get Elena to be affectionate and compliant —or at least to seduce her— by proposing to share power with her. But in the third conversation, she not only categorically refuses, but goes on to state something quite contrary: I want to know my Father.
(The energy field produced by the pyramid/crystal makes its presence known to viewers by a deep strong bass thrumming sound. After a short scene that associates the visual image of the pyramid/crystal with the sound, actual scenes of the pyramid/crystal largely disappear, and the sound alone alerts viewers to its strength and reach. The sound frequencies are so low that not all sound equipment will even be able to reproduce the sound accurately, and so intense that some will find the sound unpleasant.)
As she's leaving to go home that night, nurse Margo explores a room that's usually closed, and discovers Barry's therapy diary. She leafs through the diary, and finds that although it begins very clinically, it ends with a lot of doodles, some nonsensical, some prefiguring Elena's escape, and some graphically sexual, overall suggesting the therapist is insane. (Although not overly important to understanding the flow of events, there's a great deal of detail and many single-frame [subliminal] images throughout the therapy diary scene that are best revealed by freeze-framing.) She hurriedly puts the diary back, but drops a bit of cigarette ash into the drawer without noticing it.
Afterwards at home, Barry receives a telepathic message via the telephone. Rosemary doesn't answer the phone because she doesn't hear the ring; afterward when Barry tries to place an outgoing call he gets no dial tone; and finally we explicitly see the unconnected end of the phone wire. The call —mostly unintelligible to viewers who are unable to replay it backwards— is from a Sentionaut, a sort of artificial robotic humanoid of which the institute has many, with some serving as a sort of custodian or guard. It mentions the risk that Elena will escape, and asks about the availability of some sort of tracking technology. Then it goes on to warn Barry that his therapy diary may have been exposed. Barry is visibly upset.
As soon as he can, Barry checks the therapy diary's drawer. He finds the cigarette ash and concludes that nurse Margo did indeed find and leaf through the therapy diary. Barry now begins his descent into the insanity (or reaction to pain) he's been in denial of ever since the bad trip years ago. First he sets up Margo by telling her that Elena may have some sort of forbidden object (the now repurposed picture of her mother). When delivering breakfast, nurse Margo finds Elena with the photograph and brusqely takes it away from her and destroys it. Barry, monitoring the situation through a surveillance camera without either Elena or Margo even being aware he's around, dials down the pyramid/crystal. Now powerful without the suppression, the angry Elena psychically first pins nurse Margo's feet to the floor, and then explodes her brain. (There's a whiff of suggestion Barry has sometimes used his ability to remotely surveil Elena's room not just for therapeutic purposes but also for voyeristic purposes.)
Elena recovers her photograph of her mother, then ventures out into the hallway and begins trying to escape. But Barry dials the pyramid/crystal back up considerably. It's suppression of Elena causes her to drop to the floor and roll her eyes up inside her head. Barry then presses a button which releases an anesthetic gas in Elena's part of the building, causing Elena to lose consiousness altogether. While she's unconscious, at Barry's behest a Sentionaut comes and injects a tiny tracking device into her neck. The injection device at first appears to be a normal medical needle for transferring liquids. But a red glow around the injection site indicates there's now a powered electronic device inside Elena's neck. (Later the device appears to have moved to the other side of her neck. But this is probably either a misreading of an image or a continuity goof. Either way, it doesn't seem to really mean anything.)
Barry then visits Dr. Arboria. Dr. Arboria is hooked on some sort of injectable drug (we see a basket of used needles and we see track marks all over his arm). The drug is apparently similar to heroin (although it may not exactly be heroin, because it's distributed by a commercial pharmacological company in normal medical packaging, but heroin is not available this way). After the flashback, at Dr. Arboria's request, Barry gives him his next injection. But Barry purposely injects an overdose, which shortly causes Dr. Arboria's death. There's a psychic link between Dr. Arboria and his daughter, so Elena becomes aware of his injection and euphoria, and at his death his mind with its (limited) psychic powers and its knowledge of the institute building is transferred to Elena. As a result of adding the mental powers from her father to her own existing ones, Elena can now overcome the pyramid/crystal, can open doors, and can accurately find her way around the innards of the building.
Initially Elena doesn't realize anything has changed, and takes a nap as usual. Upon awakening, she discovers she can move about, and makes her way through the building, past various hazards including a deep shaft, a zombie-like creature, and Sentionauts. When she's passing the zombie-like creature, her deep fear causes her to lose mental focus, so the pyramid/crystal is able to reassert itself; apparently although she can now overcome the pyramid/crystal, doing so is not automatic and requires some continuous mental effort. At least one of the Sentionauts turns out to have the face of a toddler (apparently Elena herself), and no longer any intention of obstructing her. Eventually Elena crawls through some ventilation machinery and reaches the outdoors.
At home Barry discards his appliances and changes into clothes unusual for him, glances at a large glitzy knife he calls the Devil's Teardrop, has an unusual conversation with Rosemary, then gouges her eyes out with his thumbs. (Perhaps Barry's new behavior is a reaction to all the years of psychic pain since the bad trip, or perhaps it's a simple descent into insanity, or... Some options of What's the Film About? seem to provide much better explanations than others of Barry's apparent sudden turn toward casual and seemingly irrational violence.)
With two people now dead and a third mutilated, Barry goes to Elena's room, only to find that Elena has escaped, at least into the building and likely out onto the grounds. He sniffs deeply at her bed to impress her odor on his hyper sense of smell. Then he tries to locate her somewhere on the grounds by using a rotating sensor in his car to pinpoint the tracking device that was injected into Elena's neck. He interacts with a couple of heavy metal music fans he finds on the grounds, sniffing one and expressing disappointment when he detects no odor of Elena (or perhaps he's convinced he does detect an odor of Elena), and eventually killing both gruesomely. He finally finds Elena just as she wakes up and arises from a nap, and tries to capture her. But she uses the same powers she used on nurse Margo to trap his feet in a branch on the ground, then make him fall. He strikes his head on a rock and dies instantly.
Elena then starts to make her way out of the grounds altogether. The movie closes with an aerial shot of Elena walking the last few feet toward the border fence, and looking across a street into a suburban tract house with TV light flickering out its window. There's a suggestion Elena will be recaptured by Suburbia and Television. The credits roll, ending with the important quote No matter where you go, there you are., attributed to B. Banzai, a character in the 80's cult movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
Finally after the end credits there is a brief out-of-focus image that seems to be a very large (almost lifesize) action figure doll (more specifically a Mego doll, common at that period of time) lying on the floor. This particular doll is wearing clothing reminiscent of a sentionaut uniform (and perhaps also reminiscent of Barry). It's probable this —rather than the aerial shot of Elena approaching the border of the Arboria Institute grounds— is what the director considers to be the important last image. It seems we see the doll by the flickering light of a TV (the same TV Elena saw?) and hear a sound likely from a 1980s style tape recorder (badly garbled sound? someone talking backward? the phrase Do you read me?). Interpreting this as a framing device suggests the whole thing really was imagined (a semi-conscious weird dream or fever dream), based on bits and pieces of that reality (i.e. the action figure doll and its clothing, the flickering TV which likely earlier showed the Ronald Reagan speech, the barely intelligible sounds...).