Every year, Hollywood breaks out a fable explaining why nature would be, like, really cool if it weren’t for us darn humans running around spoiling everything. (Which may be true, but what business does a multi-million-dollar, resource-hogging movie have preaching to us about being kind to Mother Earth?) Last year brought the insipid Instinct, with its gutsy stance that we should leave the nice gorillas alone and not slaughter them; the year before that, The Thin Red Line, in which men went to war with parrots, tall grass, and their own florid voice-overs.
At least we’re getting this year’s model out of the way early. The Beach, a mad assemblage of earlier, better bungle-in-the-jungle stories (Lord of the Flies, Apocalypse Now, etc.), is well-crafted drivel — certainly easier to sit through than the abovementioned eco-dramas. Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) does all he can do to keep the screen alive and humming, and in purely cinematic terms — the assaultive shotgun wedding of image and sound, the lush scenery bumping against relentless techno music — the movie isn’t bad; some of it is even compelling.
It’s the spine beneath the style that weakens and cracks. The consensus is that The Beach, adapted for the screen by Boyle’s regular scripter John Hodge, parts ways considerably with the theme and emphasis of Alex Garland’s acclaimed novel; not having read the book, I’ll take everyone’s word for it and assume Garland’s Beach is purer than Boyle’s, which would not be hard. The corruption may begin with the casting of überhunk Leonardo DiCaprio, who once seemed such a risky actor, as the story’s hero Richard, who seeks paradise and thinks he’s found it on a remote island near Thailand. DiCaprio seems to be out to prove he can do mainstream action-movie shit. His defining moment here comes during a sprightly sequence in which Boyle turns him into a video-game character; it’s Run Leo Run.
Richard is tipped off to the island by a crazed visionary named Daffy (an underused, barely comprehensible Robert Carlyle), who leaves Richard a tattered map. Richard and a young French couple, Étienne (Guillaume Canet) and Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen), swim to the island and swiftly settle in after a misadventure with local marijuana farmers. A society has been set up in the jungle; its ideology boils down to “Keep everyone else out.” People get sick or die because they can’t leave the paradise, which is ruled with a quiet iron hand by Sal (Tilda Swinton), a potentially interesting character as ill-defined as everyone else in the movie.
The Beach sketches in a love triangle — Richard and Françoise cozy up to each other — only to abandon it; the movie pretends to have bigger fish to fry (sometimes literally; we get to see Leo vs. a baby shark). Richard eventually sees that this idyllic society is as ruthless and violent — as red in tooth and claw — as the jostling city world he fled; the only major difference is more sand and less asphalt. For a while, the movie toys with alienation as Richard holes up alone on the outskirts of the village, staring across the water at newcomers who haven’t swum over yet. Bad things are in store for the newbies. Richard witnesses brutal death on the island, and he has a startling revelation: the movie’s almost over, and he should really head back to the village in time for a big dramatic climax.
Who knows what the movie is saying about civilization and nature? Perhaps that when more than two people get together, disaster is inevitable. There’s nowhere, not even paradise, that you can go to escape the greed and callousness of mankind. Here and there, Danny Boyle appears to be working subversively: Richard isn’t really a hero — he’s either passive or running away. But what is he running away from? He doesn’t seem that unhappy in an urban setting, and the lurid scenes in downtown Bangkok are unavoidably more exciting than the picture-postcard island, where people mostly get stoned; when they’re feeling particularly robust, they assemble for some volleyball on the beach, while a villager is left to die of a shark bite miles away. These people don’t deserve paradise; neither do any of us, I suppose. The Beach is a high-toned bummer disguised as a primal hipster drama.