If you want to remember a time when Generation X was labelled and scrutinized by society in one of the myriad ways Millennials are today (in this case, as hedonistic hipsters who would rather seek sensation than deal with life), then it might be time to re-watch The Beach. If you want to watch frustrating rich-kid entitlement disguised as youth angst and dissatisfaction with society and then revel as utopia crumbles, then it’s definitely time to re-watch The Beach.
The Beach follows Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio in his first leading role post-Titanic), who has taken himself on a solo-trip to Bangkok in hopes of finding an adventure that will cure his quarter-life ennui. Adventure comes in the form of Daffy (Robert Carlyle) a chaotic Scotsman who tells Richard about a secret beach, possibly the most perfect beach in the world, tucked away on a restricted island. He even draws Richard a map before dying by suicide. For some reason, Richard doesn’t interpret Daffy‘s death as an omen (or feel much of anything about it at all), and decides to follow his map to this rumoured utopia, accompanied by his other new buddies: French couple Étienne (Guillaume Canet) and Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen), whose relationship is about to take a sharp turn into messy.
“Boiled down, The Beach‘s message is simple and evergreen, if pessimistic: people are the worst and will ruin anything if given the chance.”
The beach, of course, proves to be real, and inhabited by a community of like-minded drifters led by Sal (Tilda Swinton), who commands with the charisma of a cult leader. It’s fun and games, until events both from within and without the community start to threaten the fun and games. Ugliness creeps in as we start to understand just how much this little knot of people will sacrifice if it means conserving their off-the-grid party. Even if sacrifice means dragging an injured man (Staffan Kihlbom) away from the campsite and leaving him to lie alone in the jungle so that his gangrenous shark bite won’t cramp their good-time vibes.
Rewatching the film 20 years later is jarring when you remember that this is an early-ish Danny Boyle film based on a novel penned by Alex Garland (when he was only 26). It fared decently in the box-office, which critics chalked up to Leonardo DiCaprio being shirtless on a big screen because otherwise, The Beach didn’t get a lot of love in 2000. Fans of the book were apparently unhappy with its adaptation to screen. Not only were some tent-pole moments of the film changed, but the movie seems unable to commit to its stance: is The Beach supposed to be a skewering? a cautionary tale for Generation X? or are we supposed to sympathize with Richard as he flouts laws and morals and basic cultural respect to haul his little white teen heart-throb butt over to an island and stake his claim where he doesn’t belong? And of course, Moby is playing in the background, in case you forget that this is all happening in the year 2000.
Speaking of the year 2000, the Thailand that we travel by Richard‘s side is a far cry from Thailand today. Since the 90s, Thailand has seen a massive tourism boom. Around the time The Beach was being filmed, Thailand wasn’t yet a popular destination and saw maybe around 3.8 million international tourists in a year. Compare that to as recently as 2018, which saw about 38.3 million people. That’s the same as if the entire population of Canada decided to visit Thailand and invited the entire population of Alaska to come along, too.
It’s more than a little ironic that the idyllic cove made famous by the film, Maya Bay, was drastically altered by 20th Century Fox to create the island paradise aesthetic that we see on-screen. The beach was already beautiful, but to do justice to Alex Garland’s book, alterations included removing native plants that held the beach sands together against erosion, widening the beach, flattening sand dunes, and introducing non-native palm trees to match what production thought audiences would expect to see. The irony only keeps building when it turns out that the beach was closed indefinitely in 2018 thanks to overtourism. No longer a secret kept tucked away in the Phi Phi Archipelago, upwards of 2,000 boats and 5,000 people were visiting the beach every day. The reef around the island was getting destroyed. And the sharks that posed such a threat in the film? They all but abandoned the area, only returning once the tourism ban came into effect. It’s Sal‘s worst nightmare in full force: word got out about something beautiful and people destroyed it by wanting to see the beauty for themselves.
“…is The Beach supposed to be a skewering?”
Boiled down, The Beach‘s message is simple and evergreen, if pessimistic: people are the worst and will ruin anything if given the chance. It may be an incoherent movie with an inexplicable Banjo-Kazooie-inspired sequence, but at least it also features some beautiful shots of Thailand of the past.
Are you a fan of The Beach? Are you going to do a rewatch? I personally recommend pairing this one with The Ruins (2008). Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!