The Arboria Institute was founded in the 1960’s to find the connective tissue between science and spirituality, finally helping humans to achieve perpetual happiness. But as the first numbers appear on the screen, spelling 1983, you know that something has gone very, very wrong.
Now, Arboria’s work is being continued by his disciple, Dr. Barry Nyle. To the outside world, Barry seems like a wonderful fellow. But a bad psychic trip in 1966, Barry hasn’t been quite the same. He is married to a woman who seems like a servant that exists only to praise him. He’s addicted to prescription medicine. And his hair is gone and his eyes have gone black, facts he hides with a wig and contact lenses.
It gets worse. He’s also been keep Elena, Arboria’s daughter, in a prison below the hospital that’s inspired by Lucas’ THX-1138. Her psychic powers — gained by being submerged into a black mass as a baby — have been given to her to accelerate human evolution. As her father says, “You will be the dawning of a new era for the human race… and the human soul. Let the new age of enlightenment begin!” Barry has different plans, isolating her in a room with only a television that suppresses her mental powers.
Day after day of intense interrogations follow as Barry wants to determine how Elena’s powers work. Or perhaps he just wants to have sex with her, as a nurse discovers that his notes are full of strange symbols and a violent need to possess Elena. So the good doctor does what any of us would do. He takes a bunch of psychedelics and manipulates Elena into destroying the nurse. She wanders out of her room but is soon stopped by a creature in a red space suit called a Sentionaut.
Keep in mind that this movie is full of long, drawn out sequences, almost like a shoegaze song come to vibrant visual life. You’re either going to love this movie or hate it — it’s not one for easy watching.
Arboria is now senile as we see a flashback to how Barry failed at his attempt to achieve transcendence and killed Elena’s mother. Her father was completely unfazed by this, only concerned with submerging his daughter into the blackness. As we finish the flashback, Barry murders the doctor. He then shows his wife his true face, trying to explain the pain of his life before murdering her.
Elena finally escapes, meeting a mutant and another Sentionaut who reveals his face to her — he is a child. Barry has decided that he must face Elena and is prepared to destroy her with a ceremonial dagger. As he gets closer to her, he is sure that a group of stoners had sex with her, so he murders them all.
In the final confrontation, he is no match for Elena, who keeps his feet stuck to the ground. Symbolizing his failed leap forward in 1966, he tries to jump forward only to kill himself by hitting a rock. Elena then wanders into a town, following the lights of television.
After the credits, an action figure Sentionaut appears as we hear a voice in reverse speak and the title “Wherever you go, there you are.”
Obviously, that’s a reference to Buckaroo Banzai. This is a movie filled with visuals and longing, as if it’s nostalgic for a future that we only saw in the past. Director Panos Cosmatos is the son of George P. Cosmatos, the director of Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra and Leviathan. In fact, this film was financed with the royalties of one of Cosmatos’ biggest films, Tombstone. Panos has stated in interviews that this film was a way of dealing with the deaths of his parents, combining his father’s popcorn sensibilities with his mother’s experimental art.
You can spot the influences in this film from space. The 1966 sequence has the stark high contrast look of E. Elias Merhige’s The Begotten. Kubrick’s ghost hangs on nearly every frame. The director has cited Manhunter as the inspiration for the color choices. And because it was all shot on 35mm, it has a grainy look that recalls the past more than any gleaming future. I also need to call out the Carpenter influenced soundtrack and inclusion of a Venm song, too.
The actual story here is pretty simple. But the way it’s told and the way the movie unfurls is why this stands out. You can play spot the references, you can try and figure out the film’s stance on identity or you can just zone out and enjoy. Or you can hate this movie and think that it’s incredibly self-indulgent. The choice is yours. Obviously, I’m going to watch this a few hundred times to get all I can out of it. You can check it out on Shudder.