Backpacker Movie Review: The Beach

[plot spoiler ahead …]

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I’ve never been a huge Leonardo DiCaprio – or “DiCap” as I like to call him – fan. And I’d heard less-than-kind things about his 2000 film, The Beach – a film that until last week I had no idea was about backpacking in Thailand. But had an interesting review of Alex Garland’s book that inspired the movie. So I went on a Beach bender this weekend and picked up both the book and DVD rental.

Director Danny Boyle grabbed my attention and admiration with the inimitable Trainspotting – one of my favorite films of the past decade. Since then I’ve seen Boyle’s 28 Days Later – forgettable to say the least and that’s being charitable – and now, The Beach.

Leo and the plot itself hold together well for the first half of the movie. He arrives in Bangkok awash in a sensory onslaught of live street music, buskers, street kids, video arcades, et. al. His first night in hostel, his whacked-out neighbor commits suicide after an apparent all-out drug bender. But not before providing DiCap’s character, Richard, with a map and the promise of a hidden island off the coast of Thailand – a pristine island untouched by the ruin of tourism and multi-million dollar mega-resorts. A heady mix of hopeless romanticism and naiveté ensue, fueling Richard’s lust to find said island at all costs.

The film holds together loosely and somewhat believably for the first forty-five minutes. Unfortunately, we soon discover that it really isn’t about backpacking at all. That’s just Boyle’s plot hitch to get Richard and his French backpacking counterparts onto The Beach‘s beach, wherein a sort of modern day Lord of the Flies plays out (ironic since Leo was in the contemporary version of that movie as well … no wait, that was DiCap’s non-genetic twin, Balthazar Getty).

Unlike LotF however, the community of backpackers he finds are there not by necessity, rather by choice. They’ve opted to eschew the glitz, glamor, and plastic-wrapped vacation ideals of mainland tourism in favor of leading a simple, blissful existence a world (okay, two miles) away from cell phones, discount prostitution and drive-thru Taco Bells.

It’s an interesting concept and I was still onboard about half-way in. Then the plot and screenplay start leaking like a sieve and everything goes to hell with such lowlights as:

  • We see Richard regaling the community with the heroic tale of his singlehandedly spearing and killing a shark, complete with a talking animated likeness of same. I believe the shark’s exact words were, “Enjoy your dinner, Richard.” Right.
  • Richard steals the girlfriend of one his compadres – one of the film’s key characters – and nothing more is said about it for the rest of the movie. Evidently the guy didn’t like her that much anyway?
  • The head of the backpacking clan, Sal, finds out that Richard committed capital sin numero uno: he gave an island map to a few frat boy potheads on the mainland. Thirty seconds after uncovering his secret, Sal forces him to have sex with her. The calculus being: she won’t tell the clan about the map fiasco if he doesn’t squeal to Sal’s boyfriend about their tryst. It makes twisted sense, yes. But the whole scene feels shoehorned into the movie.

The nail in the cinematic coffin for me was Leo’s emotional meltdown about two-thirds of the way in. After being forced to sit vigil solo on a hilltop overlooking the ocean crossing to the beach, Richard swears to Sal that he will not allow anyone else to land on the island alive. The isolation forces him into Soldier of Fortune mode, whereby Leo attempts to play the part of a vet flashing back to combat. For me, it felt like an audition tape that actors send to potential casting directors – one that shows the entire range of their emotions in the shortest possible amount of time. The sequence borders on comical. When his mind switches into “video game” mode complete with Super Mario Bros. style graphics … well that’s when I knew the movie was past the point of any redeeming return. It’s so nonsensical and completely without context or relevance that I just had to laugh.

It’s as if, late for a production meeting, the writers rushed to finish the screenplay in an airport bathroom somewhere. “Let’s see: talking shark, Sal’s rape-for-silence thing, Richard-as-Rambo, a quirky Trainspotting-esque video game sequence and … done!”

In case you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin the entire film by blowing the ending which is somewhat interesting. Somewhat.

Suffice to say it’s two hours that would have, as Mark Kermode would say, “been better spent doing just about anything else. Gardening, even.”

I’m still looking forward to the original book, about which I’ve heard nothing but good things.

Have you seen The Beach? What did you think? Good, bad, or just plain ugly?

Founding Editor
  1. Thanks for the link. What did you think The Beach was about until you read the interview – or had it simply passed you by? I have to say I had zero interest in seeing the film having read the book, esp. as 2000 was when Leo was in his “hunky lead actor” phase. Give him credit though, he’s done some sterling films recently – The Aviator and The Departed with Mr Scorcese are both excellent. He could even be the new De Niro given his partnership with Mr S.

  2. No problem, Chris. I had no idea what the film was about – the whole idea of seeing it when it first came out just escaped me.

    To be honest, I didn’t have high hopes for the film. Occasionally though I like to watch movies that I know won’t be that great, if only to point and laugh.

    The Departed is on my must-see list – I’ve heard it’s great. I don’t really like/dislike DiCap either way. He’s just another actor in my eyes.

  3. Ok, that was a good review, and while I found the same faults with the movie that you did, I still find it inspirational.

    In fact, I bought the soundtrack in addition to the DVD. I’ve had the CD insert with the laying Buddha visible in my room every day since I decided to take a trip around the world (over 5 years ago). I will probably take it with me too (I don’t know why). The soundtrack is awesome on its own. I plan to listen to The Beach, while reading The Beach, at the damn Thai beach!

    The French girl, Virginie Ledoyen is hot. Enough said!

    PS – I’ve heard the book is much better than the movie. I thought the video-game sequence was because he was shrooming. I’m fairly certain there was a shot of him eating some local veggies!

  4. Dave – I love the soundtrack, particularly the Underworld tune.

    And has that girl been in anything else? I don’t recall seeing her before. Very hot indeed!

  5. Yes, Virginie has been in quite a few movies – mostly French though. I’ve seen one or two pop up on the Sundance channel, however I don’t have the patience to read the subtitles.

  6. The only unfortunate aspect of the conversion to screenplay was the addition of the ridiculous romance aspect. I think Garland did a great job of hinting at Richard’s lust for Françoise but never acquiring her (or Sal for that matter).

    I also think Garland deserves the praise he received for his portrayal of Gen-X characters and themes. The whole thing is on the lighter side of literature, but plot and character wise I think it’s a big step above a lot of the mindless fluff that’s floating around.

    As for the talking shark and Mario Bros scenes, they served to illustrate Richard’s parallels with Daffy.

    Just reading through that review… I’ll agree with pretty much all they said about The Tesseract and just noticed recently that it was made into a movie as well although I can’t quite bring myself to rent it.

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