The Beach [DVD]
Screenplay : John Hodge (based on the novel by Alex Garland)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Leonardo DiCaprio (Richard), Tilda Swinton (Sal), Virginie Ledoyen (Françoise), Guillaume Canet (Étienne), Staffan Kihlbom (Christo), Robert Carlyle (Daffy), Magnus Lindgren (Sten), Victoria Smurfit (Weather Girl), Lars Arentz-Hansen (Bugs)
"The Beach" marks Leonardo DiCaprio's first leading role in more than two years, since the worldwide juggernaut that was "Titanic" (1997), and that alone invests the film with a certain interest value. It is not interesting so much because DiCaprio stars in it (although he is certainly one of the finest young actors working today), but rather because one's curiosity is peaked when a certified "movie star" finally selects a new project after sitting on the sidelines for so long. What was it about "The Beach" the piqued his interests? What did he see it? What is he trying to accomplish by starring in it?
Unfortunately, after seeing "The Beach," I'm not quite sure I can answer any of those questions beyond a few educated guesses. First of all, it is not a "teen-idol" role in any sense of the word, which serves DiCaprio's desire to get away from the cover of "Teen Beat" magazine and closer to being taken seriously as an actor. Much as Matt Damon's legions of teenage girl fans were shocked at his portrayal of a gay sociopath in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999), many a teen girl may be a bit taken aback by DiCaprio's portrayal of a self-absorbed, untruthful American traveler whose primary narrative function in "The Beach" is to cause the destruction of an idyllic paradise community. DiCaprio may have also been drawn to the chic coolness of working with Danny Boyle, John Hodge, and Andrew Macdonald, the director-writer-producer team behind "Trainspotting" (1995).
At any rate, "The Beach" turns out to be a deeply flawed adventure film with heavy themes about the fragile nature of paradise that aren't quite pretentious enough to outweigh some of the film's more enjoyable, popcorn aspects. "The Beach," which was based on a 1997 novel by Alex Garland, is certainly a strange film--words like "uneven" and "unfocused" don't quite get to the heart of the film, but they're a start.
When the film opens, DiCaprio's character, who bears the painfully dull American name Richard, has just arrived in the thriving heart of Bangkok. He is a young twenty-something traveler without a background who is looking for adventure in the mystical Far East. Instead, he finds himself stuck in a dingy hotel room with nothing to do but bemoan his lack of adventurism. Everything changes when a strange man in the room next door (Robert Carlyle) tells Richard about a hidden island paradise, leaves Richard a copy of a map showing how to get there, and then commits suicide. With the help of a French couple staying a few rooms down the hall, Étienne (Guillaume Canet) and Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen), Richard sets out to the find the island.
When they arrive, they find that the island is divided in two. One half is guarded by armed drug runners who guard vast marijuana plantations. The other half is a sort of modern hippie commune, with a group of two dozen sub-bathed, hardbody, twenty-something travelers from all over the world who have decided to build their own private society secluded from the hustle and bustle of the modern age. The community is presided over by a woman named Sal (Tilda Swinton), who is a sort of compassionate dictator who ensures that everyone in the community is happy wallowing in whatever gives him or her pleasure. For one person, that means playing cricket on the beach. For a couple of others, it involves fishing. For some, it involves something as banal as sitting in a hammock all day playing Nintendo Gameboy.
Whatever their choice, pleasure is the key word here. Unlike communes from the '60s, the island community in "The Beach" has no real ideological stance outside of the individual members' personal pursuit of pleasure. They're not against technology or capitalism or anything else; as a matter of fact, they don't seem to have any real beliefs at all. They only thing they don't like is what stands in the way of their own pleasure-seeking. It's an Epicurean delight, nearly perfect it its self-containment, which means that it is also strictly off-limits to outsiders.
Therefore, the major conflict in the film is Sal worrying about how Richard, Étienne, and Françoise got a copy of the map, and whether there are any other copies floating about that others might get their hands on. In other words, the community is a perfectly functioning organism, and the introduction of Richard and his friends is like a disease that ultimately kills it.
Danny Boyle is one of the most consistently imaginative directors working in film today, but since his success with "Trainspotting" he hasn't managed to find a project that suits his energy. "A Life Less Ordinary" (1997) was a bizarre grab-bag of cinematic tricks in the service of a whacked-out story with no rhythm or flow, and the same might be said of "The Beach." There are moments of great effectiveness scattered throughout, but there are also moments of almost surreal ineffectiveness, such as a sequence where Richard imagines himself to be a living video game. The idea is right, but the execution is painfully silly.
In some ways, that sums up "The Beach": a few good ideas, bad execution. However, much of John Hodge's screenplay is so unfocused and random in its narrative development that the film actually develops suspense and tension by constantly generating the question, "What could possibly happen next?" There is so little narrative logic in "The Beach" that its muddled trajectory becomes almost a source of strength, in that there is little or no way to guess what is coming, so everything is a surprise (even though, in hindsight, many of the plot developments are routine).
"The Beach" is certainly a curiosity piece, and it is unfortunate that it didn't come out better. The filmmakers had some good ideas, but couldn't quite come through in the end. Boyle, always the master of shifting tones, moves from broad humor to abject horror in a heartbeat, and he does an excellent job of setting up several jokey moments about shark attacks so that, when one actually occurs, it is a stomach-turning, sickening moment. He elicits good performances from the actors, although there is nothing in DiCaprio's acting that suggests the ability he demonstrated in movies like "This Boy's Life" (1993) and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (1993). Perhaps that is because his character (like everyone else in the film) never registers as being particularly thoughtful, which is more or less what can be said about the movie as a whole.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround; Dolby 2.0 Surround
Languages: English (5.1, 2.0), French (2.0)
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Scene-specific audio commentary with director Danny Boyle; 9 deleted scenes (with commentary); Storyboard gallery; Theatrical trailers and TV spots; All Saints music video, "Pure Shores"; Featurette; Promo spot for the soundtrack
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Video: The anamorphic digital transfer of "The Beach" is outstanding. While the film has its lacking in the narrative department, the photography is beautiful, and this disc does it justice. Director of photography Darius Khondji is a master of juxtaposing light and dark, and the transfer handles the extreme uses of contrast in terms of both light and colors very well. Flesh tones appear natural, and the wide array of colors are nicely saturated without bleeding. The print used for the transfer was pristine, and there were no digital artifacts to be found.
Audio: The soundtrack is also uniformly excellent, with great use of the surround speakers and the subwoofer to create an expansive soundstage that truly surrounds. The film is heavily reliant on its music, and the soundtrack does a fine job of handling the extremes of Angelo Badalamenti's melodic orchestral score and the various techno-rock songs that punctuate many scenes.
Extras: The disc comes equipped with a nice set of extras, most notably nine deleted scenes (with optional commentary by director Danny Boyle) that were taken out not because they didn't work, but simply because the film was too long. In fact, some of the deleted scenes are really quite good, and they might have helped the film's coherence if they had been included in the final cut. Director Danny Boyle's commentary isn't particularly memorable; he seems to spend a lot of time explaining the characters and the plot, rather than than the actual making of the film. However, he does offer some nice behind-the-scenes tidbits, and he has a pleasant, engaging demeanor. Also included is a brief behind-the-scenes featurette, which is a typically lightweight concoction made up mostly of clips from the movie and a few interviews. The disc also includes five theatrical trailers and ten TV spots, as well as a music video and a nice storyboard gallery. Overall, a good set of extras that help shed light on a film that should have been better than it was.
©2000 James Kendrick