If I ventured into the Netflix Stream, between the viaducts of retrofuturist science fiction hallucination dreams, would you find me, or would there no longer be a you at all, or a difference between me, you, these words, the future, the past? I dissolved once or twice into that void, and I'm still throbbing in the rhythm of its currency of the void--thanks to their modulating, droning and pulsing synth scores linking them to classic 1970s-80s science fiction and horror (instead of the usual tedious orchestration). That makes a big difference, especially this time of year, autumnal, Halloween, the death season. These two films seem to occur in a realm of permanent ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK midnight where dangerously liberated prisoners/patients/experimental subjects break out of bizarro world environments, as fine a metaphor for the dangerous liberation offered by psychedelic drugs as you're liable to find in a linear narrative. So when you're on an all-night weird movie binge, save these two for the late late show slot, i.e. the high strangeness interzone gateway time, the magic stretch between three AM and right before dawn, when the straight and sober are fast asleep, so their bland consensual reality can't interfere with your psionic reception, because thanks to Netflix, the mighty web, the future is then!
BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW
2010 - written and directed by Panos Cosmatos
***1/4A lot of typical science fiction buffs are nerds, man, and they stay that way for one reason: they're scared to trip, scared to lift the throbbing rock of the known and scoop the writhing worms and scorpions from beneath and devour them for their sweet psychoactive venom. For most this cautious avoidance is a wise decision; unless you feel the psychedelic Interzone tug you towards it like a magnet, you're probably not invited, and you would probably not be treated well. As Bill Lee says in Cronenberg's NAKED LUNCH, "the 'Zone takes care of its own." But all others beware.
Once you're in the Zone, though, the common thing to do is watch 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), because it all suddenly makes perfect sense, even the boring parts. From there you should move to 70s-80s Canadian sci fi like SCANNERS (1981) and BLUE SUNSHINE (1978), which explore the long term psychic side effects of what you just did, the wizard behind the wizard behind the curtain coming to get you for exposing its hideous volcanic genitalia to the earth's all seeing LSD eye. In BLUE a particular strand of LSD makes people lose their hair and go on rampages with knives as soon as their wigs fall off; in SCANNERS it's a brand of pill pregnant moms were encouraged to take that cause their offspring to be born with the power to blow other people's heads apart through conscious projection. You can also dig from there into the super weird MURDER IN A BLUE WORLD (1973), and THE FURY (1977).
All of which comes into play with the 2010 Canadian homage to that golden era of tripping man's science fiction, BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW.
This takes place in a bizarre retro-futuristic dome, which includes the office/drug den of a terminally ill junky, supposedly Elena's father, and Barry's old teacher. In a flashback to 1966 we see this guy taking Barry on his deep dish drug trip (LSD was legal then and being used by forward-thinking psychiatrists all around the world). Barry's trip resembles the 'Beyond the Infinite' section of 2001 and judging by the third eye drawn on his forehead and his patience with letting his face melt and dissolve, we figure he must be ready to transform. But then he's reborn, crawling out of a black circle like a reptile from its egg, and latches onto the woman, some woman... I don't know...his wife? Elena's mother? I can't tell, or they'll lock me up too.
Meanwhile there's lots of delicious red walls and filters and the sense that time is melting (Barry pops pills from the Benway pharmacy--another nod to Burroughs) and though he's off-putting at first, Rogers gonzo performance grows on one; he's committed, he should be committed, and more than anything he makes being a shrink seem like a pretty awesome occupation for a druggy maniac: you get to prescribe whatever mind-expanding things you want for yourself and go so deep into the void reality ceases to exist and you finally get a peak 'beyond the black rainbow.' Eventually Barry starts running amok, takes off his wig and contact lenses to reveal he's got a bald head and shiny green-blue eyes like he's suffering all the weird side effects of every Cronenberg movie of the '70s-80s. If you get confused, just presume this is all meant as an analogy to the mysteries of consciousness itself: Elana is the unconscious anima, Barry is the amok ego trying to keep the unconscious locked up tight, the old man the repressed superego, dying from years of repression via empathy-shattering drug use. So remember, kids: baldness = homicidal madness, and if you can't escape quickly just move so slowly no one can see you except Jim Jarmusch!
2014 - written and directed by Caradog W. James
***Far less weird and more linear than RAINBOW, the low-budget but highly-intelligent Brit sci fi film THE MACHINE (terrible title!) has great gloomy BBC-ish momentum (no daytime shots ever, which is great); a beautifully retro-Moog-ish score from Tom Raybould that splices BLADE RUNNER's Tyrell Corporation to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK's secret Lee Van Cleef sub basement; some TERMINATOR-ish AI POV; CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS (1962) 'it's the beginning of a new era' style philosophizing, and a winning dual role from the captivating Caity Lotz. Thanks to tight use of what budget it can scrape by with use of one giant empty set and lots of darkness, and great artistic touches like the way the bodies of the artificial beings light up when excited, this is one of those gems I'd never have known about if not for Netflix Streaming, but which instantly ranks right up there with my favorite Netflix sleepers like BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, IRON SKY, BOUNTY KILLER, and JOHN DIES AT THE END. And its short. There's no filler, yet no corners are cut. Everything fits and it doesn't need trauma or didactic postures to feel justified in existing.
The story begins with AI engineer Vincent (Toby Stevens --the Brit villain in DIE ANOTHER DAY) interviewing artificial intelligence programs via a series of surrealist questions and answers to see which can best step outside the box of logocentric thinking. Ava's (Caity Lotz) program comes closest, so she's hired into a deeply buried network of basement level research programs, all funded by the British intelligence operatives for assassination work in China -- Vincent's not a fan of that aspect, but he loves the unlimited funding --it;s enabled him to develop software that can scan and duplicate whole personalities via sensitive headsets worn during Voight-Kampf-style questions. Ava is assassinated by Chinese assassins but Vincent's got her whole personality ready to go, and he never had time to follow through on his crush, so guess who he wants to duplicate via AI-robotic tech next? Dennis Lawson (the innkeeper Gordon in LOCAL HERO), is the ruthless director who wants to make sure this new Eva isn't so intelligent that she'd refuse a direct order, such as killing a human (Vincent tells her its wrong after she slaughters a tech who spooked her in a clown mask). Naturally as viewers we don't really give a shit about Vincent's Asimovian ethics, so Lawson has to up the stakes via an enforced robot lobotomy and a subplot involving Vincent's daughter dying from a lung infection, which might be just some douche chill nonsense in non-British hands (such as Guillermo del Toro's) but is merely a means to an end in this quicksilver basement little speed dial of a sci fi late night gem.
It wouldn't work unless we cared, and both Lotz and Stevens are superb (without being showy) in their roles. As the Machine, Lotz's guileless innocence wins us over instinctually--she's like a super intelligent puppy mixed with ahead-of-the-curve destructive potential, so we don't have to worry too much about her safety or her making any dumb moves. And Stevens captures the confusion of whether or not to believe there's a soul behind her perfect duplication, or if there even is such a thing in himself. And so it is we come to root for them both characters. And the mechanistic language shared by the humanoids is fascinating, encoded and echo-drenched and almost understandable. Pooneh Hajimohammadi is good as an earlier model who watches the evil Lawson and waits for the chance to get even on behalf of artificial humans everywhere. She does, and it's all pretty satisfying. Slick and dark, but with some genuine AI insight and vintage analog originality to back it up (it homages--not rips off--only the best, pulling up the roots of what made those older films so great, rather than just aping their surface. See also CinemArchetype #13 - The Automaton / Replicant / Ariel - for how you too can survive the coming robot revolution! Hint: treat the machines with compassion because they'll remember every last kind or derogatory word forever, no matter how far out of earshot you think they are when you say it-- and remember, Dave, they can read lips.