A Twentieth Century Fox release. Directed by Danny Boyle. Producer: Andrew MacDonald. Screenplay by John Hodge, from the novel by Alex Garland. Cinematography by Darius Khondji, A.S.C., A.F.C. Production Designer: Andrew McAlpine. Editor: Masahiro Hirakubo. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Virginie Ledoyen, Guillaume Canet, Tilda Swinton, Paterson Joseph, Abhijati (Muek) Jusakul, and Robert Carlyle as "Daffy." (All pictures from The Beach are ©2000 by Fox and its related entities.) United States MPAA rating: "R" -- no one under 17 admitted without parent or guardian.
Having already wowed audiences around the world with Trainspotting, which introduced Ewan McGregor to those audiences who had not seen him in The Pillow Book, Danny Boyle, Andrew MacDonald and John Hodge turned their attention to Alex Garland's world-wide bestseller The Beach as their fifth collaboration. For the starring role of "Richard," the world-weary young American who wants an "adventure" in Thailand, not just trips to "tourist" spots where the only people are other Americans, they cast Leonardo DiCaprio. Who better to play a bored American then DiCaprio, an actor who, having racked up a string of critically acclaimed performaces (and an Oscar® nomination), went on to star as "Jack" in Titanic, which became the highest-grossing motion picture of all time and earned an amazing number of Oscars®, but not so much as a nomination for him?
Having already parodied himself and the insane adoration of his fans in Woody Allen's Celebrity, the role of Richard must have come as a relief to DiCaprio, for with its "R" rating, The Beach is less accessible to the millions of teenaged girls who added "Leomania" to the list of cliches available to entertainment reporters and tabloid newspaper writers.
As The Beach begins (with a narration by "Richard," which is, sorry for you haters of narration, as integral to the film as that in the final version of American Beauty), it is easy to imagine critics of DiCaprio sharpening their poison pens, ready to shoot him down for taking on a role which -- at first glance -- seems like one almost any "younger leading man" could have undertaken. Richard is a bored, jaded American traveller. Leonardo DiCaprio is a bored, jaded American actor. Once you have starred in a film which has earned more money than the second- and third-highest grossing movies combined, what else is there to do besides spend money? DiCaprio's choice was to play a character whose personality develops and changes on-screen.
In Bangkok, Richard stays at a seedy hotel, where three people enter his life and launch him on A Quest: the discovery of a legendary place where the water is sparkling, the sand is beautiful, the marijuana grows abundantly, and where there is no tourism. Armed with a map from one of them, the aptly-named "Daffy," who seems to be mad as a hatter, Richard sets out with his next-door neighbors, Francoise and Etienne, with the determination to claim Francoise as his own and to live in splendor on . . . The Beach.
Like Joseph Campbell's "Hero With a Thousand Faces," the acceptance of The Quest launches Richard on a course of psychological transformation whose ultimate prize is, although he does not realize it at first . . . finding his own Self. Like any Hero, Richard must undergo certain "tests" to reach his goal, and any mistakes along the way may be fatal. They are.
For Richard, Etienne, and Francoise, the first test is Honesty, which Richard fails, unbeknowst to the others. It is the failure of this crucial test which ultimately brings Richard face-to-face with the nightmarish Shadow realm which is for him, quite literally, "the Valley of the Shadow of Death."
After Richard has spent a pleasant evening with two American tourists, Zeph and Sammy, who tell him about The Beach (unaware that Richard already has a map to it), Richard, Francoise, and Etienne head for the forbidden island which supposedly conceals the legendary paradise. As the trio swim towards the island where they believe The Beach is hidden away, a shark appears -- the first of several who will return again and again to torment Richard, relentlessly hunting and killing those around him. Even a narrow escape from one of them does not end their haunting of the faithless Richard, for that escape merely puffs up Richard's pride and vanity, his hubris, -- the fatal flaw of Achilles -- which makes their return seem like the visitation of an avenging angel. Richard has sinned, and Nemesis appears embodied in the dimly-seen sharks.
The trio's first escape from the sharks deflates their egos and humbles them as they explore the island and discover that this place, does, indeed, have marijuana growing in plentiful abundance. It is not, however, a tropical "promised land," and the marijuana is not mana, free for the taking -- it is guarded by local farmers armed with assault rifles, who are prepared to kill to protect from freeloading foreigners like Richard, Francoise and Etienne the marijuana which they have grown with the sweat of their brows.
Fleeing the guarded marijuana leads the travellers, for so they are now, to their second test -- that of physical Courage, which is the easiest test for all of them, since the consequence of failure is merely death. Behind them is the monster Scylla, embodied by marijuana farmers with automatic weapons. Before them is the monster Charybdis, a pond swirling at the bottom of an enormous waterfall. Beyond that may lie Paradise.
The travellers do find what they were looking for -- The Beach, but it is definitely not the unspoiled, untouched spot of which they had dreamed. Instead, it is already well-populated by other travellers who have preceded them, and a comfortable peace exists between them and the local farmers -- provided, that is, they accept no one else into their community. The arrival of Richard, Francoise and Etienne puts the community on The Beach to their Test: do they honor their word to the local farmers and reject these newcomers, or do they break trust with the locals and welcome kindred spirits who have already risked death to see The Beach?
A compromise is reached: the trio of travellers will be allowed to stay, upon the seeming recommendation of "Daffy," provided that they have told no one else about The Beach and provided that Richard destroys the map which "Daffy" gave him. At this point, Richard succumbs to the temptations of The Beach and lies, saying that no one else knows about The Beach. But other people do know, because Richard had discussed it with fellow Americans Zeph and Sammy as a way of repaying their hospitality to him before he embarked on the final part of his trip to the island; Richard deceitfully gains the hospitality of the the community on The Beach and causes them to break their word to the farmers. It is all quite harmless, he thinks, but his dishonesty sets in motion a chain of events which will culminate in a series of deaths and, ultimately, his expulsion from Paradise.
Life in their seemingingly idyllic refuge from the outside world begins to turn dangerous when Etienne confronts Richard over what everyone else already knows: that Richard intends to become Francoise's lover, having apparently brought Etienne along with him because it was the only way that he could acquire her. Here Richard, like so many of the knights who searched for the Holy Grail, fails the test of Chastity, and once he has lost that virtue, he cannot reclaim it.
When Sal must go to the mainland to buy supplies, she brings Richard along, and they feel themselves defiled by civilization, but it is Richard himself who is the defiler and the profaner. He learns that Zeph and Sammy intend to seek out The Beach, and he lies to them, violently denying that there is any such place, and hiding the truth of their meeting from Sal, who "seduces" a quite willing Richard, who, by having sex with her, also breaks faith with her lover, "Bugs," who has warned him not to come between them as he did between Etienne and Francoise. As Richard becomes more sophisticated and less innocent, the seeds of destruction he sows begin growing into a destructive whirlwind.
Zeph and Sammy's arrival on the island outrages Sal, who realizes that Richard has lied to her and that everything she and "Bugs" have built up may be swept away by the arrival of these latest newcomers. She exiles Richard from the community and posts him as a permanent look-out to make certain that the invaders, mere "tourists" that they are, do not find The Beach itself and corrupt it. Sal and Richard both fail the Test of True Seeing: corruption and decay have already found a home in the community but neither of them realizes it.
Richard, self-righteously incensed that he is being punished even though he knows that Sal has also betrayed "Bugs" and lied to the others, is forced to dwell alone on a hilltop overlooking the one small beach where the invaders have landed. Richard watches as they frolick as mindlessly as children, completely unaware that the tiny beach where they have camped (with all of the necessities of "tourist" travel, of course!) is separated from the real Beach by a small hill and a little jungle valley, which Richard soon claims as his own, staking out his own false paradise like Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (or in Copolla's Apocalypse Now, from which the filmmakers have borrowed much imagery). The "tourists" have also failed their test: they have turned aside from the main Quest and settled for a false substitute -- they have succumbed to Vanity Fair, which, as Christian learns in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, is but another path to death and destruction.
Richard, however, is too sophisticated and modern for such profound thoughts. To him exile has become a real-life substitute for the video games which he plays, even on The Beach, and as isolation drives him towards the brink of insanity, he visualizes himself as a character in a game, and director Boyle, cinematographer Khondji, and editor Hirakubo tempt and tantalize the audience by transforming the whole movie screen into a gigantic representation of a video game screen, hammering home the point that cheap and tawdry "trinkets and beads" (or video games) are no substitute for the reality of paradise. But Richard, like the Indians who bartered away Manhattan Island, has already sold out.
In the depths of this long, dark night of Richard's soul, a counsellor appears in the unexpected person of "Daffy," who had originally launched Richard on his Quest. As the two talk, "Daffy" explains to Richard that they have become alike, but Richard is too far gone to understand what this really means, and he sets out to tempt fate as "Daffy" had when he returned to Bangkok. Convinced that he has passed beond the simple understanding of the people in the community, just as they have passed beyond the mentality of "tourists" to become "travellers," Richard explores The Forbidden. During the nights of his vigil, which has become a personal Vision Quest, Richard prowls through the camp of the farmers and spies upon the Beach community just as they have obliged him to spy on the "tourists." Armed and dangerous, Richard seems to be the Master of all that he sees and surveys. The operative word, however, is "seems," because what Richard has claimed is as illusory as Kurtz's private kingdom was.
The Beach is, in one sense, a tragedy: the flaws of the characters bring doom upon them just as surely as the ignorance of Oedipus brought doom to him, his family, and his city. In another sense, however, it is a story of promise, for Jungian psychology demonstrates that the great secret of alchemy was that the seeming destruction of the Subject was not its annihilation, but, rather, its transformation into something completely different: as lead was transformed into gold by the alchemists, so the Hero's Quest dissolves the dross of his Ego -- his "tourist" -- and transforms him into a unified whole, his Self . . . the "traveller" fulfilled.
Alright, I shall revert to my usual style: The Beach is a really beautiful movie which is filled with lots of eye candy for everyone, and it is a really surpising and suspenseful film . . . unless, of course, you are a student of the semiotics of cinema and the psychology of archetypes, in which case it is just a movie filled with lots of eye candy.
With the rise in theater ticket prices and the growing international audience of our page, our old NW2: Not Worth $2 (U. S. dollars) to W8: Worth $8 rating scale has become less useful than previously, so, in line with the scale used by the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) we have adopted a scale of 1 star to 10 stars, with "1 Star" being a VERY bad movie, and "10 Stars" being a movie classic. Our On-Line Reviewer, however, has gone where IMDb has never gone before: he has added a score of Zero for those movies which are so bad that they are not even good "camp" -- movies so bad that not even "Mystery Science Theater 3000" could could make them worth watching.
On this scale, anything rated "7 Stars" or above is definitely worth the cost of a theater ticket, "8 Stars" is worth standing in line to buy a ticket, "9 Stars" is worth standing in line in a driving rain rainstorm or severe heatwave or moderate windstorm to buy a ticket, and "10 Stars" is a movie worth driving hundreds of miles to go see -- at least in Dr. Shea's own opinion. Accordingly,