**½/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B+
starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tilda Swinton, Virginie Ledoyen, Guillaume Canet
screenplay by John Hodge, based on the book by Alex Garland
directed by Danny Boyle
by Bill Chambers When we meet Richard, the U.S.-born narrator/hero of The Beach, he has succumbed to the idea that finding adventure necessitates getting the hell out of his homeland--drinking snake's blood and sleeping with roaches play pleasantly into his romantic notions of danger. And as he roams the steamy streets of Bangkok in search of the next hedonistic-masochistic delight, Richard appears cutely oblivious to the American infiltration of Asian culture ("The Simpsons" episodes on TV, the constant bubblegum music sounding from ghetto blasters, etc.). The Beach is about how we as earthlings can't escape Western civilization, and the futility of trying.
Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio) is kept awake one night in his hotel by the sounds of lovemaking (his attractive neighbour, with whom he has become infatuated, is getting some from her boyfriend) and by the Scottish-inflected ravings of Daffy (Robert Carlyle), a mysterious rabble-rouser who tears away at the mesh screen of Richard's window to offer the tourist drugs and chit-chat. Daffy recounts the pleasures of a beach he once inhabited, part of a sun-bleached mass as-yet-undefiled by tourists. The following morning, Richard discovers the suicidal storyteller's corpse along with a hand-drawn map to the secret isle; and he enlists an eager Etienne (Guillaume Canet) and Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen), the couple next door, to join him in retracing Daffy's path to paradise.
Said mass, it turns out, is guarded by gun-toting farmers fiercely protective of their cannabis crops; so much for smoking pot all day, one of Richard's loftier ambitions. The ensuing chase climaxes with the three travellers coming to the edge of a cliff and diving off, into a blue lagoon--the precarious entrance to the world of their dreams. Out of harm's way, they discover a group of European expats living in harmony, officially seduced by the beach's white resplendence. They've struck a deal with the farmers above: no more trespassers, live in peace.
British Sal (Tilda Swinton), the appointed matriarch of this microcosm, is cursorily welcoming of Richard and his friends. Plainspoken and bossy, she assigns chores and whatnot to her people that will keep them thriving (Richard proves himself an adept fisherman)--and the appropriately ginger Swinton, who gives the film's most vibrant performance, gets to the ruthless core of Sal quickly: she's a lordly tigress waiting to pounce. We get the feeling that The Beach will build to a confrontation between Richard and Sal, because her eyes are always narrowly surveying, with a mixture of lust and venom, his very American power to influence.
Richard spends his downtime--and there is an awful lot of it--drinking in the atmosphere (handsomely captured by Seven cinematographer Darius Khondji) and pining for the taken Francoise. Why shouldn't he? She's gorgeous. Sadly, there's no compelling reason for them to stay attracted to each other after their inevitable surrender to temptation occurs. They're arguably not very interesting as individuals--he's an archetypal backpacking tourist and she's the willowy innocent of countless male fantasies--but as lovers, they're total blank pages, stuck with the label of "couple" because relationships based solely on casual sex don't exist in the foreground of expensive (read: American) movies.
The Beach is conventional in other respects, settling down into something vaguely formulaic the same way director Danny Boyle's biggest hit to date, Trainspotting, does in the wake of a few mindbending mock-hallucinations. There are trippy detours throughout, most memorably when Richard pictures himself in a cheesy videogame (battling a tiger, natch), but for the most part, The Beach treads structural ground well worn by Lord of the Flies and The Mosquito Coast and Apocalypse Now. A sequence in which Richard starts to go jungle-mad could be snipped without recourse, and its omission would mean one less encumbering cliché.
Fortunately, the film's ideology is uniquely its own. Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge (adapting a book by twentysomething Alex Garland), and producer Andrew MacDonald, recovering nicely from A Life Less Ordinary, have decided that utopia and the Western world need not or cannot, at this point, be mutually exclusive. It is understood, when Richard and Sal travel to the mainland for provisions with a grocery list of personal requests from the islanders (for toothbrushes, dish gloves, GameBoys, etc.), that we survivors of the twentieth century are too dependent on stuff, i.e., the creature comforts, to enjoy "paradise" as only nature intended.
And while it is Richard who throws the beach's societal balance out of whack, by dumbly holding the door open for dopehead tourists, the filmmakers don't turn his arrival at Fort Sal into an Ugly American scenario. Instead, Richard is an invigorating presence to those denizens in need of reminding why this secluded lifestyle is the cat's meow. (The character is too inoffensively drawn, but also competently portrayed by DiCaprio.) The Beach's most insightful moment is a single shot of our green planet composed of microchips. United by technology, our globe is shrinking; the tech revolution may seem suffocating, but its oft-forgotten goal is to liberate the human being from feeling anything but free. Originally published: February 11, 2000.
The Beach receives better treatment on DVD than some would say it deserves. After two viewings, I actually have a soft spot for the film, though "Survivor"-fever might be clouding my perception. The 2.35:1 video is 16x9-enhanced and very quickly establishes itself as among the best Fox transfers; that's grain you see, all right--crystals of sand. The clarity is so strong that one gets lost in the image, even during the blackest scenes, which I felt lacked texture in the cinema. The compression is flawless to the naked eye. Audio is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital and standard Dolby Surround. Concerning the 5.1: a techno song-track provides a thudding beat for the subwoofer, and the surf often rolls in the surrounds. Overall, a subtle mix that won't tax your system. Aside: it was nice to have a subtitle option during Robert Carlyle's manic, marble-mouthed cameo.
Scotsman Danny Boyle contributes commentary to the feature as well as a section of poorly-preserved deleted scenes (each overzealously watermarked within the letterboxed bands so that we never mistake it for finished footage). While his approach is one with which I often differ ("We try to keep it in the present tense," Boyle says of his films, defending a tendency to leave out traces of backstory), he's an articulate, enthusiastic speaker whose affection for the final product is contageous. We learn that he made some good choices in the cutting room: Of the nine removed sequences, most are redundant at best, and the alternative prologue and epilogue definitely leave something to be desired. (Thai New Year's customs were detailed in the original version, which proved fruitless considering it was not the story's main location.) My only complaint is that we return to the menu between each omission--a "play all" option is always a plus.
Four non-anamorphic trailers (including the appetizing teaser that came attached to The Phantom Menace), ten TV spots (separated according to their marketing gist), All Saints' video for their "Cruel Summer"-esque "Pure Shores" (one of their few decent tunes), a storyboard gallery (whose panels are not, disappointingly, accompanied by descriptions, forcing us to fend a context for ourselves), and cast and crew bios are also included in this above par, if slapdash, Special Edition. The menus are an enjoyable rotating diorama of the film, and upon first inserting the disc, viewers will encounter a new Fox promo that is too long and not anamorphic enough, but at least a) it's in 5.1, and, b) it can be aborted with a click of the chapter button. Originally published: July 24, 2000.