Indie Roundup: ‘Extraterrestrial’ and ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’

This week, we’re looking at a pair of sci-fi movies that prove you don’t need a gargantuan budget to be good.

Back in 2007, Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo wowed audiences with his debut feature, “Timecrimes,” an immensely clever thriller that combined the slasher and time-travel sci-fi genres. Told with admirable economy — the movie had only four characters — the film stuck with its premise while remaining suspenseful, mysterious, and inventive. It’s a mind-bending mini masterpiece.

[Related: Legendary film critic Andrew Sarris dead at 83]

Vigalondo’s feature-film follow-up is “Extraterrestrial” — opening this week — which is one part alien-invasion yarn, one part film noir, and two parts comedy. The result might not be as tightly conceived as “Timecrimes,” but it’s a lot of fun.

Julio (Julian Villagran) wakes up in the remarkably well-appointed apartment of Julia (Michelle Jenner) following a drunken one-night stand that neither can remember all that well. They interrupt their awkward morning-after conversation when they see a massive four-mile-wide flying saucer looming over the city. Worse, it seems that the neighborhood was evacuated at some point during their drunken slumber. Well, not quite. Julia’s creepy, love-struck neighbor, Angel (Carlos Areces), has stayed behind, along with Julia’s long-term on-and-off again boyfriend Carlos (Raul Cimas), whose crazed intensity about the impending alien invasion has left him blind to his girlfriend’s infidelity. When Carlos shares a rumor that aliens might be walking incognito among them, Julio and Julia use it as an opportunity to cover up some of their more obvious lies. Needless to say, things quickly spiral out of control. I don’t want to give away the movie’s numerous plot twists, but I promise that you won’t look at a tennis-ball machine in quite the same way after seeing this film.

[Related: Indie Roundup: ‘Patang’]

Let’s get one thing clear: “Beyond the Black Rainbow” — which opened in NYC a few weeks ago and starts a limited run this week in Los Angeles — is not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you’re the sort of person who spent much of your adolescence trolling the cult corner of your local video shop, if you fast-forward through “2001: A Space Odyssey” to get the trippy last 15 minutes, and if you have been on or are currently on hallucinogens, then this movie is for you.

The year is 1983. Using a “unique blend of benign pharmacology, sensory therapy, and energy sculpting,” Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers,) the turtleneck-sporting, pill-popping head psychologist of the Arboria Institute, promises happiness to potential clients. Yet mirth seems to be greatly lacking at the clinic. Nyle’s sole source of enjoyment is bullying Elena, a mute, heavily sedated young girl housed in a room so sterile that it makes “THX 1138” seem cozy. At first, the movie feels like a pastiche of John Carpenter or early David Cronenberg films. But as it unfolds like a slow-motion fever dream, director Panos Cosmatos’s obsessions reveal themselves as far stranger and more avant-garde, recalling works by art-house heavyweights Kenneth Anger, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Andrzej Zulawski. We see a younger Nyle immerse himself in a viscous black substance that causes his head to light up like a volcanic rock doused with magma. A throbbing disco pyramid emits fog. Seven-foot-tall sentinels with baby heads patrol the institute. And then, when Elena finally escapes from her cell, the movie gets really weird.

“Black Rainbow,” with its very deliberate pace and psychedelic synth score, is one amazing, visually audacious head trip. Even if you don’t enter the theater in a chemically altered state — not necessarily a bad idea for this movie — you’ll feel you are in one when you leave.

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June 2012

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