Millennial Malaise 28: The Beach

In Which Tourists are Parasites

From our perch entering the third decade of the 21st century there is a nostalgic romanticism to the world of travel of the recent past. That in the brief blip of history that was the interregnum between the Cold War and 9/11 the world seemed fully and finally open to trek around. You didn’t have today’s heightened, and usually ineffectual, security checks, or exorbitantly priced airline tickets. No, a person could gallivant to an airport minutes before their plane left instead of hours. And while modern technology has greatly helped in planning a trip and traveling in a foreign country, it has lost the mystique of the analog: of tactile maps, asking for directions, and the possibility of getting lost and finding something greater than you ever dreamed of.

Danny Boyle’s 2000 vacation fantasia The Beach indulges in both the fantasy of travel, and tries a bit of condemnation as well. A seeming take down of the whole concept the “finding myself” tourist, wrapped in a sheen of turn of the millennium new-agey spiritualism.  It’s a movie that wants to lure the viewer in with it’s beautiful people, beautiful locals, and excessive style, only to pull out the rug. Except only its sort of a rug pull, because Boyle hedges in the final moments of the movie, and it unravels whatever thin thematic through line held the whole thing together.

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The tourist finding himself here is Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio in the first film he shot after Titanic went and became the biggest movie of all time). An American in Thailand who’s not like those other tourists. No he’s not a parasite or a cancer, he’s looking for something, “more beautiful, more dangerous.” Which involves guzzling down snake blood and accepting a strange map to a pristine beach from a druggy resident of his cheap hotel. After this quest giver mysteriously kills himself, Richard enlists a pair of French lovebirds to go on the trip, after an arduous journey the idyllic beach is found, and along with it a community of fellow wanderers headed up by Sal (Tilda Swinton). But paradise is not to last, and after a series of ill advised romantic entanglements, accidentally giving the the coordinates of the beach to some doofy stoners, and a multiple shark attacks, Richard realizes that paradise isn’t as great as the postcard (until he does).

In some ways The Beach is Boyle’s riff on Apocalypse Now (hell we even see people watching that movie at the start of this one). It’s the story of a man who goes up into the jungle and slowly loses his mind because of his surroundings. Succumbing to the bizarre instincts of the environment around him. But this the late 20th century, and a morally questionable war is no longer what causes our greatest existential angst. No, instead our fears and paranoia is born out of heaven not living up to its reputation. That the eternal war for the soul is fought over which exotic hottie you sleep with on the crystalline sands and how other less enlightened traveling Neanderthals are ruining the local charms of south east Asia.

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It’s of course a glaring hypocrisy from the perspective of Richard and compatriots. One that the film obviously wants to wrestle with, but refuses to fully condemn the people it portrays. Firstly Boyle is way too high on his own supply. The exuberant stylistic camerawork he honed for his first three movies is supercharged here to the nth degree. Every shot is either blown out to extreme hyper-colors, slowed down, exaggerated with computer effects, or sucked dry of hue. Every image is then scored to the thrumming of contemporary cool house music, all giving it the air of mystique and excitement.

The purpose is fairly obvious. Boyle wants to entice the audience with the punch drunk style to replicate the whirlwind excitement of actual discovery on a trip of one’s own. It’s just once the movie transitions from luring one in to a turn for the worse everything gets wackier, sillier, and more extreme. The idyll of the beach group is shattered by a horrifying shark attack that kills one person and fatally wounds another. It should be a sobering experience, a bucket of cold water on the fun times of the faux resort, but Boyle has to indulge in a bit of the hyper-violence along the way. Leering at ripped flesh, and tracing a hilariously long trail of blood from the beach to the jungle. He was a cool director from the 90’s after all.

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Then we turn to Richard. After being exiled from the beach community after sleeping with both Sal and one half of the French lovebirds, Francoise, and the reveal that he gave a copy of the map to some goofy stoners, he goes full off the rails. In the thicket he both has to watch out for the cadre of stoners and the local violent proprietors of the weed farm on the island. Here is where the aforementioned wackiness takes full control, and Boyle devolves into the cinematic equivalent of yelling, “look how crazy this all is.” There’s a moment where Richard pretends he’s in a Crash Bandicoot-esque video game. Complete with of the era graphics. There’s the moment where he dreams about shooting down his tourist friends, Vietnam style, with the dead man who gave him the map. It feels like a bunch of noise to cover for the fact that DiCaprio at the time was still a little too stuck in his pretty boy look (he is so young looking here), and that Boyle doesn’t have much more to say than, “even the tourists who think they’re cool, are in fact not cool.”

The climax of the film confirms the suspicion that the beach community is too good to be true. Sal is willing to kill Richard to keep everything just so, and the people involved realize that they are just as bad as any other tourist, taking over foreign lands for their own self-expression and satisfaction, that death and destruction are merely collateral incidents to being honest and true about one’s travel experience. So they leave the beach, and it seems like that this thematic is set. That you’re still a parasitic traveler even if you find a secluded piece of paradise and set up a quasi-cult there. But no the final moments reveal that actually it did matter and was actually great because we got to spend some sick weeks together hunting fish and playing volleyball and finding ourselves.

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Richard receives the perfect postcard from Francoise, capturing a moment on the beach when everything was terrific, and Richard realizes in a bit of narration that his vacation was actually totally cool. Despite the people who got inadvertently killed, and the national park despoiled because of said dead bodies, Richard had an authentic and spiritual experience, and that’s what truly matters. That his Colonel Kurtz cosplay was nothing more than a blip of bad nerves on the journey to enlightenment brought by his travels. His life was given meaning by his tourism, because despite the wackiness involved, it was above all else, authentic.

Odds and Ends

  • This movie is Boyle’s first collaboration with soon to be major creative partner Alex Garland. The Beach is in fact based on book by Garland, and from all reports the film is a radical departure from the text. Given the rather poor outcome I’m surprised that this partnership didn’t collapse almost immediately.
  • What partnership did collapse was the good will between Boyle and his original leading man Ewan McGregor, who had a falling out with the director when he decided to cast DiCaprio in this role.
  • In a sad bit of life imitating art the real beach that this movie was shot at had to be closed down recently due to ecological damage caused by tourists visiting the beach because of the the movie The Beach.
  • For as much as I don’t think this movie works, Boyle’s excessive style means that it’s never boring when it is also frequently bad.

As always, twitterletterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).

Once again open to suggestions for next week. But I may go off onto to weird tangents like this again.