It's the fourth and last film of the team of Danny Boyle (director), Andrew Macdonald (producer) and John Hodge (scriptwriter), after Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary. They broke up after this, although Macdonald has since produced other Danny Boyle films. Shallow Grave was an attention-grabbing debut that launched careers. Trainspotting is a landmark of British cinema. A Life Less Ordinary is amiable fluff that's okay, but I'm not as taken with Ewan McGregor as most people.
The Beach though is a boring mess with unlikeable characters. I started checking emails while I was watching it, to give myself something to do.
Its biggest problem is Leonardo DiCaprio, in his first job after Titanic. I'm not normally a DiCaprio hater, but he's a movie-killer here and I agree with his Razzie nomination for Worst Actor. Admittedly he's playing a shallow, self-absorbed, lying cock, but that can be just as compelling as a straightforward hero. Unfortunately DiCaprio doesn't find anything interesting in the character. He's dull. I didn't care. I couldn't even hate him. His narration is at times flat, he doesn't seem to know what to do with this role and it's instructive to compare his failure to the success of the Trainspotting crew. Both films star unsympathetic characters with lots of voiceover narration, but Ewan McGregor et al kept you glued to the screen. DiCaprio pushes you away.
That said, he's clearly a much stronger actor these days. Nevertheless it's annoying to learn than DiCaprio was imposed on Danny Boyle by 20th Century Fox, which incidentally caused a rift with Boyle's first choice, McGregor. McGregor had been in all of Boyle's films until this point, but he's never been in another one since.
Another point of note is that the Thai government were upset about the production team bulldozing and landscaping the beach on Ko Phi Phi Lee. They were also unhappy about the fact that drug-growing in Thailand was an important part of the plot, but the real problem is the environmental damage. However all this was largely erased by the Boxing Day tsunami that killed over 230,000 people in 2004.
I haven't talked about the storyline yet. DiCaprio is an American tourist (who's English in the original novel) who's swanning around Thailand looking for the real experience or something. He likes the idea of it being dangerous. He drinks snake blood and hooks up with a couple of French tourists. When a map to a "perfect island" comes into his possession courtesy of a deranged, screaming Robert Carlyle, off he goes to find it.
There's quite a good cast here, if you can see past DiCaprio. Carlyle doesn't get much screen time, but I'm always happy to see him. Paterson Joseph is fun, Tilda Swinton gets to be tough and unsympathetic and there are a couple of French actors who deserved better than this.
There's potentially interesting stuff here, but the film doesn't develop it. You could try imposing Garden of Eden metaphors if you wanted (e.g. the snake blood), perhaps. There's a mildly disturbing incident involving what happens when you scream too much on an island paradise, but the film then forgets about it. DiCaprio has sexual relationships with women, but again the film doesn't seem particularly interested in doing anything with this. The story feels directionless. It lacks momentum. We're also told that DiCaprio's character plays a lot of video games, which seemed ludicrous to me even though it's apparently from the novel. This guy? Really? The first thing he does is to complain about people who go abroad and yet stay in touch with civilisation. He's jumping off cliffs, trekking off into the jungle and hooking up with random strangers in South-East Asia. Is this man really a video game geek?
The monkey was cute, though. I like monkeys.
Looking back with hindsight, one might almost think this film killed Hodge's scriptwriting career. He didn't do much in the following decade, although he's been busier in the last few years. I think this is a bad adaptation, despite not having read Alex Garland's original novel. (Ironically Garland has since worked with Boyle again on 28 Days Later and Sunshine, not to mention also writing the new Judge Dredd movie.) This film though has individual ideas and scenes I like, e.g. DiCaprio signing a police statement in Thai without having a clue what he's putting his name to. However the film never really does anything with its good moments and they never add up to anything.
This movie isn't horrible. On the contrary, it's frustratingly hard to pin down the factors that are stopping it from being really classy. It has a distinctive cast. It has Thailand. It has an Oscar-winning director and a storyline full of juicy stuff to explore. However the finished film feels as if it got out of bed on the wrong side or something, then never recovered. The only person I gave a damn about was Paterson Joseph. None of the characters seem important, either because they're underwritten or because they're DiCaprio. Considering this film's individual parts instead of their sum, it's solid, well-made and even sometimes impressive. However to me it felt like a waste of time.