I watched this film last night, hoping to write an admiring review of its handling of white characters in foreign lands, but The Beach left me disheartened. I thought it had promise because its makers, director Danny Boyle and producer Andrew MacDonald, put together the much better films Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. They seem intent here on getting a message across about young Americans abroad, but the message ends up garbled at best, lost amidst the apparent need to earn back the megastar salary of Leonardo di Caprio by offering a lot of titillation, and very little cerebration.
In my review of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, I examined how such whites-in-foreign-lands movies tend to operate, which is basically by keeping culturally blinkered, self-involved white characters on center stage throughout, and by reducing non-white characters to one-dimensional stereotypes, and the lands they live in to exotic, variably beautiful or disturbing backdrops. These adventure films are “white movies” because they’re made by white people, about white people, in order to appeal to a white audience.
Again, I had hopes that this film would have more substance threaded into its entertainment efforts than
The beach Richard finds is inhabited by a group of people like himself, Americans and Europeans who want to live “off the map.” These people repeatedly proclaim their joy at having found paradise, and Richard soon joins them. He’s made the mistake though of inviting others, who soon follow, resulting in the emergence all sorts of repressed ugliness, not unlike that portrayed more insightfully in another island-life story, Lord of the Flies.
Like Richard, the people in the ad hoc family he joins take relational pride in being unlike other Western travelers, or “tourists,” those who flash by in the city scenes, gaudily and obviously chugging beers, groping Thai women, dancing on fire-lit beaches, and vomiting in the street. The filmmakers know, though, that “paradise” is just a Western state of mind, and they make some effort to expose the imperialistic underpinnings of this supposedly egalitarian community.
Dean MacCannell, who made a scholarly reputation by analyzing Western approaches to the rest of the supposedly uncivilized world, has explained part of what’s wrong with this urge to get away from the crowd, and often from oneself, by pursuing some unspoiled
Aside from the irony of there being little original about this community’s off-the-map (but really on-the-map) portrayal of what amounts to “tourism,” rather than “travel,” it resides on an island owned by a Thai marijuana farmer. He and the hired, armed men who guard his crop have little to say or project beyond menacing threats, but they do deliver a comeuppance to the community that unveils its careless disregard for local people.
The community's claim to being a sustainable, valid alternative to "normal" life is also exposed as a sham when some of its members suffer a shark attack. As one attackee lies groaning for days on end with a leg that's turning green, the community dispatches him to a tent, unable to put up with his complaints. As the party that is their life resumes, Richard registers disgust for us with their basic immorality.
Despite such brief displays of its own morality, the film itself is notorious in another, racially charged way. Just prior to its 2000 release, news began emerging about the actual Thai beach where it was being made. The filmmakers wanted their white traveler’s goal to be an especially unspoiled, paradisaical beach, so they found a nice one in Thailand. It wasn't unspoiled enough, though, so coconut trees were imported, unsightly sand dunes were bulldozed, and other landscape adjustments were made. Local environmentalists objected, but Fox Studios found the right government officials to bribe, and the actual beach’s ecosystem is still struggling to recover. (The extent of the damage caused by the film crew and its aftermath were tracked by a group of Thai students, who logged their results on a web site called “Footsteps on the Beach.”)At one point, Richard descends into a deranged state, running half-naked through the jungle, eating insects, and setting vicious booby traps for the farmer's armed guards. His internal frame of reference is suddenly highlighted by the image of him as a character in a video game, fighting animated tigers and dispatching paper-thin villains. This scene connects with earlier ones showing him playing an actual video game, and with another character's attribution of the thickness of his thumbs to excessive video-gaming. The implication is that Richard suffers a detachment from reality because a socially induced filter alters his perception of the world, and of his role in it. Also, we can see that the lingering effects of his American upbringing inform his performance of a Tarzan/Rambo fantasy in ways that would only fit a white male. What seems to snap him out of this fantasy, if only briefly, is the reality of having a woman's blood splatter in his face as she dies.
Had the filmmakers further explored Richard's young, white, male American perspective, and the tendencies while traveling abroad that are often induced by such a social status, this movie could have been much more interesting. As it is, The Beach mostly just participates in the kind of hedonistic, exploitative tourism that it pretends to critique and rise above.
Here's the film's trailer: