A friend who'd seen a trailer for "The Beach" described it, only half joking, as a cross between "The Blue Lagoon" and "Lord of the Flies." It's easy enough to see why Danny Boyle's movie would evoke such analogies. Here are nubile young Westerners in pursuit of endless pleasure cavorting on a lush Thai tropical island. And here, of course, is paradise lost--the inevitable moment when the dreams of these young utopians turn into nightmares, and violence supersedes peace, sex and pot-laced pipe dreams.
"The Beach" is a much less silly film than "The Blue Lagoon," that "tasteful" 1980 exploitation film designed to showcase Brooke Shields's kiddie-porn chic. But I have a hunch that "Lagoon" will be remembered longer than Boyle's gorgeous but curiously weightless fable--in spite of the fact that it is Leonardo DiCaprio's eagerly awaited follow-up film to You Know What.
DiCaprio, to his credit, has never courted matinee-idol status. The character he plays here, Richard, a young backpacker in search of extreme experience, is no sane person's dream date, cute as he may be. A callow American kid with no moral bearings and little common sense, Richard arrives in Bangkok, where he encounters a mad, suicidal Brit (Robert Carlyle) who gives him a map showing the location of an island that, legend has it, is as close as it gets to paradise on earth. Richard's travelling companions are a pretty French girl he covets (Virginie Ledoyen) and her boyfriend (Guillaume Canet), whom Richard is happy to betray.
This eye-popping isle, they discover, has already been colonized. Half of the island is run by machine-gun-toting dope growers. The other is a secret community of half-clad fellow travelers led by a commanding Englishwoman named Sal (Tilda Swinton). Can these lotus eaters create their own Eden? One guess. Unfortunately, as screenwriter John Hodge (working from Alex Garland's novel) tells it, the crackup of this would-be utopia is a banal, unsurprising event. No tragic resonance here. Richard, acting out his "Apocalypse Now" fantasies, goes temporarily (and unconvincingly) bonkers in the jungle; the other characters are so sketchy it's impossible to care about any of them. Boyle and Hodge ("Trainspotting") rely heavily on Richard's narration to spell out the meaning of what we are watching; it's as if they knew they had failed to dramatize the story correctly.
"The Beach" is nothing to write home about, though the landscapes are ravishing. The movie itself is neither fish nor fowl--the first half is not nearly as sexy as it should be, and the decline and fall is about as harrowing as an expulsion from summer camp. "The Blue Lagoon" meets "Lord of the Flies"? We wish.