If Lord of the Flies came to life with good-looking adults, it’d be Danny Boyle’s The Beach. And in case the book is left dustily in your memory of high school required reading material as it is on your shelf, here’s the short: a group of kids are left unsupervised on an island and the ugliest of human nature comes to a head. The Beach is a pseudo-recreation of this, except Leonardo DiCaprio is your heroine amongst a gaggle of tanned adults with Peter Pan syndrome: no one wants to grow up.
The Beach was released in 2000 – before the Internet generation with Instagram feeds and mindless click-feed bait of travel destinations catered to cubicle-suffocated 9 to 5 patrons, eating up hours in the day. In my second viewing of the film over a decade after my first, I was surprised to see how little had changed. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Richard, a twenty-something in need of an adventure the way all twenty-somethings do, who ups and leaves to backpack in Thailand. Thailand as a travel destination then is the same as Thailand as a travel destination now: a Never-Never Land for grown Westerners bored with life. Richard strolls around downtown Bangkok his first few hours after landing just to see other Westerners crawling around, with native Thai appearing only in the service industry. He is thousands of miles away from home, but nothing has really changed.
The Beach is commendable for its demonstration of this particular theme – that eternal paradise is not by any means a permanent vacation in the sun. Richard is in Thailand, finds an exclusive off-mainland island via a tip-off from a creepy hotel neighbor, enjoys the novelties that come with new experiences, especially ones that entail living on a white sand beach, all in the name of living life in search of “…something more beautiful, something more exciting, something more dangerous.” Living on the island – with its perceived communal atmosphere of Westerners working together to preserve the ways of their alternative lifestyle – is akin to gaining entrance to the VIP section of a slimy Vegas nightclub: access happens to fall upon the whiniest of the already entitled, believing to be coolly exclusive and chosen. And for spooky effect, the esoteric Tilda Swinton plays ringleader and community queen Sal; entry to this particular community is on her terms. Under Sal, the island community was once happy and thriving together. But novelties and niceties wear off to normalcy and the thriving community’s shallow contours come to focus clearer and clearer on human nature’s individualistic intentions as the story continues. Just as the expression goes – wherever you go, there you are. There is no island paradise that changes that.
The Beach is certainly not a feel-good movie but it at least wraps up on a feel-good note to effectively counter the creepy used to tell the film’s ultimate message. Richard is back to life in the States – shenanigans that is his finding himself on a twisted island masked as paradise is over – and locks his eyes on a sunny photograph of the place he once called home, and the smiling people with whom he shared his experience. “I still believe in paradise,” he insists. “But now at least I know it’s not some place you can look for. Because it’s not where you go. It’s how you feel for a moment in your life when you’re a part of something.” The beach people in The Beach wouldn’t have been who they were without the shared synergy that once existed amongst them, as lost as they all were. But the point is that this energy – as fickle as it is to capture – was once there.
The Beach artfully reminds the restless in all of us that the sun will set to darkness in Never-Never Land, too. And for everyone else, Thailand is just a plane ride away.
Written by Dara Kim