As the 20th century came to a close and the world waited anxiously for the Y2K calamity that never happened, there was no bigger movie star – no bigger celebrity – in the world than Leonardo DiCaprio. As a 23-year old with cutting eyes and matinee idol hair, DiCaprio stormed the cultural landscape in 1997 with James Cameron’s Titanic, a film that simultaneously cemented his status as a movie star, a box-office certainty, and one of the brilliant young actors of a new generation.
Titanic was such a success that MGM rushed DiCaprio’s The Man in The Iron Mask into theaters four months later… it opened in second place behind Titanic, still king of the box-office world AFTER THREE MONTHS. DiCaprio held the top two spots at the box office in the spring of 1998, and from there the expectations were insurmountable. Though he popped up in Woody Allen’s low key lark Celebrity that fall, DiCaprio’s “real” next release – after more than a year of gracing the cover of just about every magazine across the globe – was Danny Boyle’s The Beach.
Based on Alex Garland’s engrossing 1996 novel of the same name, The Beach was right in Danny Boyle’s tech/pop wheelhouse, a fast-paced thriller about narcissistic Westerners who disrupt an island oasis, exposing the darkness hidden beneath. But the hype surrounding the movie was all about Leo, who plays Richard, the audience’s guide into the dark heart of a society that’s sprung up in paradise. The problem was The Beach – an esoteric R-rated picture with a mean streak and truly despicable characters from top to bottom – was not exactly what the young women of America were looking for from their new matinee idol. That’s why it opened strong in February of 2000 with $15 million, and immediately fell off a cliff; the next weekend it plummeted to seventh place, down 46%, and it shriveled and shrank out of sight, failing to crack $40 million.
Poor word of mouth doomed any chances The Beach had of being successful, and the critical reception at the time branded it a misfire, regardless of box office. Ebert gave it a two-star shrug, Elvis Mitchell called it “unsubstantial.” It was a middling reception across the board, dismissed as unwieldy and unfocused, full of garbage humans. I remember the almost palpable sense of bewilderment in a theater full of teenaged girls when Richard hallucinates himself in a video game, and the squirming discomfort when the victim of a brutal shark attack is left to die in the woods, out of earshot from utopia. This was the new hero of Tiger Beat nation, tripping balls and ruining paradise in a weird and ugly thriller, and you could almost feel the disappointment in the cinema.
The expectation for Leo DiCaprio to continue starring in $300 million blockbusters in the aftermath of Titanic was foolish, not only because it was never going to be sustainable, but because it ignores everything that came before Cameron’s epic. DiCaprio was always more interested in darkness, examining the discomfort of youth in This Boys Life and The Basketball Diaries; he earned his first Oscar nomination playing a mentally handicapped kid in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, one of the most fringe indie dramas to break through into the mainstream. But after Titanic, those films were pushed aside by the majority of Leo’s new fans. They wanted him to be charming, and critics wanted him to be elite, and with The Beach it’s clear DiCaprio wanted no part of the pedestal.
What other explanation is there for DiCaprio to take on Richard, a character with his head so far up his own ass, there’s no way to make him work as a sympathetic guide? Richard’s existential, upper-middle class jaunt to Thailand to try and “feel alive” is a disgustingly glib reason to get this wannabe adventurer in the middle of the action, and it’s all intentional. We aren’t supposed to side with Richard in most scenarios. When he meets Daffy (Robert Carlisle), a broken refugee of the island utopia, he is immediately a passive observer to the events happening all around him. He thinks nothing of using the map Daffy’s left him, or telling other American tourists about the map, or inviting Françoise and Étienne (Virginie Ledoyen and Guillaume Canet) along for the ride, because he sucks, and he’s supposed to suck.
The introduction of Françoise and Étienne does little to alleviate Richard’s despicable vibe; they’re both just as narcissistic as Richard, and the only reason Richard wanted to invite them to begin with is to try and steal Françoise away – which he succeeds in doing. Because, again, these people suck. The way in which they are insufferable is Boyle’s plan, to pull us into this bleak faux paradise with bleak, faux human beings who can’t see anything past the nose on their own face. It’s always a challenge to tell a story through the eyes of characters nobody likes, and that mixed with the fact that DiCaprio arrived on the scene with his own baggage explains why The Beach was rejected on sight.
The politics and the economy of the island, run by Tilda Swinton’s benevolent dictator, Sal, is the meat of the picture, and it’s exciting to watch our trio of young idiot travelers as they swim and jump and stumble upon this pristine beach bay, surrounded by mountains and trees – and surrounded by fields of marijuana plants that are guarded by a murderous, armed militia with whom Sal and the members of paradise have made a pact: no more members from the mainland. The falsity of everything about this world is exposed in a matter of weeks, over a series of increasingly disturbing events, and as Richard falls out of favor with the ragtag society, things slip into a darkness that will wind up destroying everything.
And it should.
Alex Garland’s story is a criticism of human society in general, and The Beach leans into this theme to the point where it turned off viewers. After years of Garland’s work infiltrating pop culture – namely in recent years with Annihilation and Ex Machina – we know his opinion on humankind. In Garland’s view, people will never be able to find utopia because, if they do, they will be there, and they will eventually ruin it. It’s obvious, too, why the environmental angle to such a bleak indictment of humankind enticed a young, environmentally-conscious Leo DiCaprio. He was beginning to grow more and more concerned with environmental action, and he wanted to push back against everything Titanic brought him at the same time, to dig deep into a grossly egotistic bad guy and tell a story about greed and arrogance; and so he found Boyle’s wild, energetic picture to work through his new angst.
It isn’t a perfect film by any means – calling it “actually good” might be a stretch – but one thing The Beach has never been is dull or uninteresting. It’s messy and it’s difficult to watch for a multitude of reasons, but that isn’t an outright dismissal. There is still plenty to enjoy on a visual level, and the thriller elements all work to create an uneasy threat. Considering the era, and where Leo was as an actor, and expectations, and pushback against those expectations, The Beach also takes on a certain perverse charm twenty years down the road. I would certainly appreciate the arrival of something this wild and unhinged today.