THE BEACH: Apocalypse Now 2 – Beach Vacation (2000 in Film #6)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, I’m looking at Danny Boyle’s millennial curiosity, The Beach

You almost can’t reconcile twenty-something Leonardo DiCaprio with his forty-something incarnation. He moved across the 2000’s from the teen heartthrob who raced pulses for Baz Luhrmann in Romeo + Juliet and melted a generation of hearts for James Cameron in Titanic all the way into a skilled, chameleonic leading man and character actor all in one by the time of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

When you look back at The Beach, it feels like the first stirrings of DiCaprio’s edgy, youthful brio shedding its skin. Danny Boyle’s picture is DiCaprio embracing his sex symbol icon while simultaneously rejecting it.

Some commented at the time that Titanic, released three years earlier in 1997, likely helped The Beach at the box office, yet I’m cheating this week as it wasn’t the biggest financial success in the US on its opening weekend. That honour goes to Disney’s The Tigger Movie, rather ignominiously for Boyle the auteur. Yet the film picked up traction for a decent take, no doubt pulling in Leo’s fans who would have been totally unprepared for the Heart of Darkness-tale the actor undertakes in The Beach, which perhaps deserved to be called Apocalypse Now 2: Beach Vacation.

The Beach serves as the first collaboration between Boyle and writer-cum-director Alex Garland, here adapting his 1996 novel of the same name, before they would collaborate on post-apocalyptic zombie drama 28 Days Later. While DiCaprio arrives following the galactic global success of Titanic, Boyle is on the bounce from his post-Trainspotting misfire A Life Less Ordinary in 1997.

Had events taken a different turn, Ewan McGregor would have played DiCaprio’s traveller Richard, perhaps instead of his role in the strange Eye of the Beholder, but director and star’s successful partnership collapsed creating a ten-year rift, fuelled by some said the studio’s determination to see a prominent American actor in the leading role of a film you wonder they feared could be a difficult sell. After all, while Boyle’s film swaps the glum depression of a wet, drug-addled Glasgow for a tropical paradise, Garland’s script is a strange quest narrative which transposes addiction to the exotica of Thailand, conflating the search for utopia in a fast-moving, modern world into a twisted tale of self-aggradising, toxic Western tourists abusing the Eden they create for themselves. You need a DiCaprio to get bums on seats.

In reality, his fans would no doubt have been surprised by The Beach, no doubt in terms of the subject matter and precisely how keen DiCaprio is to wilfully torch his romantic, teen idol image. Richard is a wholly unsympathetic protagonist in a film even Boyle later admitted had no likeable characters. His internal monologue courses through the film from beginning to end, a la Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; indeed Richard early on puzzles at tourists who travel to Bangkok and then sit and watch Western movies. He doesn’t see the point. He is an utterly self-serving individual who has travelled from the security of Western civilisation in search of the unfamiliar. “This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven’t tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It’s probably worth it”. We’re a long way here from drawing Kate Winslet like his French girls.

Richard is an avatar for a restless millennial generation who, in 2000, were emerging from the stability of a decade in the 1990’s which promised them a great deal: adventure, prosperity and all the while, a good time. The Beach details how Richard’s encounter with seductive French beauty Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen) ultimately leads him to the fabled ‘beach’ and a community of Western tourists who live an agrarian lifestyle in the paradise of a hidden Thai lagoon, results in almost an entire psychological breakdown as any sense of moral perspective is withered away by hedonism and the pretence of freedom. Garland’s story in one sense is prophetic in how this generation were headed for a fall, that the freedom and happiness the world seemed to promise was never going to last. “I told myself spreading news was part of a traveller’s nature, but if I was being completely honest, I was just like everybody else: shit-scared of the great unknown. Desperate to take a little piece of home with me.”

The Beach suggests that the pursuit of hedonistic freedom in a modern era of responsibility and pragmatism is a myth. The titular beach is treated as a fable, discovered only through a map Robert Carlyle’s cautionary tale presents Richard, and in the end the community turns out to be more of a cult, ran by the sociopathic Sal (Tilda Swinton), a woman prepared to quite literally kill to protect them from the realities of an outside world they are all running away from, in some sense. Richard is hinted to come from privilege (he certainly has parents worrying about where he is, albeit unseen), as are all of the fairly smug tourists presented throughout the film, which suggests Boyle never really intended for us to like this people. Why should we? They don’t represent an ideal. They represent a corrupted ideology which places self-interest above any sense of decency or community.

That perhaps suggests why The Beach was never embraced as a film, even if it did decent box office. It was perhaps to sudden a right turn for DiCaprio away from the image he had burned into people’s minds at the turn of the millennium as to the kind of actor he was, an image DiCaprio clearly didn’t want to pervade. Richard is no romantic hero, his rather is a journey up river to self-discovery, though perhaps not quite on the level it could have been: “I still believe in paradise. But now at least I know it’s not some place you can look for, ’cause it’s not where you go. It’s how you feel for a moment in your life when you’re a part of something, and if you find that moment… it lasts forever…”. Boyle and Garland seem to be suggesting that experiences can be forged in the most extreme of circumstances but the message doesn’t really hold true. Richard doesn’t seem to learn anything by the end. No wisdom is imparted. He just runs scared from how alien the experience is.

The Beach didn’t particularly engender itself to Thailand either as a country, not just because the production team ended up causing damage to an area of natural beauty to create the cinematic idyll which, in a moment of tragic irony, was only corrected by the 2004 tsunami, but also for the film’s depiction of Thailand as a den of iniquity; Bangkok is a drug-fuelled city of vice, drawn even in more of a stark fashion when Richard returns to the place after weeks in the isolated lagoon, while Western privilege is violently tested by vicious, murderous Thai gangs who have even less moral compunction than the tourists. The film paints the East as an unknowable paradise, a place as dangerous and threatening to naive Westerners as alien planets would be to venturing astronauts, and reflects the anxiety of a generation looking to push boundaries and try different experiences. The Beach believes little good can come of it.

Though a frequently leaden and fractured attempt to take Joseph Conrad to a hippy stoner’s heaven, The Beach did give us two things in the end: a good song by All Saints which anyone who grew up at the time can probably still sing, and a Leonardo DiCaprio unafraid to mess with what audiences expected of him. For that reason alone, the trip was probably all worthwhile.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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