Although Danny Boyle directed A Life Less Ordinary in the interim, The Beach is the true spiritual sequel to Trainspotting, which ended with Ewan McGregor’s character walking into a rave future as Underworld’s “Born Sippy” crested over his final monologue. That final scene was effectively a challenge to any future rave cinema, and a challenge from Boyle to himself, which he fulfils here, making Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and The Beach a loose trilogy about the rise and fall of British rave culture. From that perspective, it’s not hard to see why McGregor was frustrated at not being offered the lead in The Beach, which went instead to Leonardo DiCaprio, in possibly the most sensuous role of his entire career – and certainly the peak of his earlier career. Leo plays Richard, a freelance traveller who is drawn to a mysterious island community in Thailand known as “the Beach,” headed by the enigmatic Sal, played by Tilda Swinton. The Beach closed community of travellers from all over the world, funded by a marijuana plantation, whose Thai farmers live in an uneasy alliance and symbiosis with them.
From the outset, The Beach beautifully balances the romance and danger of travel, rediscovering the adventure film for a new era of global tourism, thanks to a perfect synergy between Boyle’s acute sensitivity to place and space, Darius Khondji’s gorgeous cinematography, and Angelo Badalamenti’s lush score. At the same time, it picks up where Trainspotting left off, since the first person Richard encounters, in his Bangkok hostel, is Daffy, a former member of the Beach community, played by Robert Carlyle. For all intents and purposes, Carlyle is reprising the role of Begbie here, gathering Richard up in a burst of insane energy that continues the propulsive momentum that concluded Trainspotting, before this energy overtakes him, and induces him to commit suicide. In effect, Daffy (and Carlyle) provides a single, increasingly unhinged monologue – a monologue that eventually consumes him, not unlike Ewan McGregor’s monologue in the final scene of Trainspotting, which accelerates until it finally collapses in upon itself, and so gives way to Underworld’s anthem.
Yet while Daffy’s monologue may also consume him here, it propels Richard to seek out the Beach, based on a rough map that Daffy draws for him before he dies. In that sense, the Beach culminates and crystallises the rave culture that peaked in Trainspotting, and the way in which this culture tended to visualise and conceptualise itself – in album art, in the design of night clubs, and in the imagery and iconography of classic rave tracks, all of which envisaged the raver as a new pan-global citizen, a dancefloor traveller whose command of beats and melodies opened up a new pantheistic mysticism and cosmic communion with the earth. These aspirations typically coincided with vast tropical concatenations of sea and sky – landscapes different enough from Britain to feel properly exotic, and sparse enough to evoke the full curvature of the earth’s surface, along with the Gaian rhythms that the more esoteric edges of rave tried to capture and harness. Immersing themselves in a new kind of night, the raver aimed to dance into a new kind of dawn as well – an expanded consciousness that marked the last and most flamboyant extension of the new age landscapes of the 80s before these oceanic vistas were thoroughly reclaimed by reality television in the wake of Survivor.
While Daffy may provide the coordinates for this mythical rave space, Richard is also peculiarly susceptible to it, confiding in us, in a series of doped-up voiceovers, that he’s oppressed by “too much sensation” without a proper outlet. Complaining that “we all travel a thousand miles just to watch television,” Richard realises that the naturalistic tropics can no longer satisfy his travel bug, which yearns for the mystic tourism of the dancefloor, but also that television and new media has lost its ability to channel and structure sensation as well. It’s telling that Richard’s most bummed-out monologue occurs while he’s strolling through an arcade where televisions blast oversaturated footage of the “Flight of the Valkyries” from Apocalypse Now, since even this feat of the technological sublime – still one of the most spectacular scenes ever filmed – fades into banality in the face of Richard’s tropical yearnings.
That said, Apocalypse Now is still the closest approximation for Richard’s yearnings, especially since Boyle discards the war content (for now) and instead embraces it as an attempt to evoke rave culture avant la letter, making The Beach a spiritual sequel to Coppola’s film in turn. For one thing, this is easily the most ambitious English language film set in Southeast Asia since Apocalypse Now, while Richard’s monologue seems directly modelled on Willard’s monologue. Travelling to the Beach is fused with travelling to meet Kurtz, since both destinations promise to take the technological sublime of each film’s entire aesthetic to its apotheosis. Similarly, both destinations are clouded in mystery and speculation – Kurtz hasn’t had any direct contact with American command for many months before Willard reaches him, while Americans tends to regard the Beach as an urban legend of the kind that featured so heavily in teen films from this era. In these years before social media well and truly took over teen life, urban legends tended to function as ciphers for knowledge that remained off the grid, arcane pockets of space and time that have now been relegated to the pre-digital past, meaning that The Beach would never make sense today, either as a place or as a film premise.
As with so many films from this era, this imminent digital fluidity, here understood as the province of rave culture, is associated with a sublime taste for permeability and porosity, although Boyle extends it further than just about any other director. While Richard has to travel many days and nights to reach the Beach, the entire trip feels like a passage through water, since he weathers humidity, heavy rain and a thunderstorm before he and his French companions Etienne (Guillaume Canet) and Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen) realise that they have to swim two kilometres across open ocean to even reach the island. Once there, they have to wade their way along a river, and then jump over a massive waterfall, before finally arriving at the Beach proper – a pellucidly turquoise lagoon, surrounded by steep cliffs, that opens up to the sky like a great cosmic eye. No surprise, then, that porosity is gradually collapsed into cosmicity over the course of this fluid journey, starting with a scene when Richard and Francoise gaze through his telescope in the middle of the night, while he reflects that “in the eternity of space, there’s probably a planet just like this one,” and imagines staring up into a porosity so pure that one parallel universe after another unfolds before him.
While Francoise pokes fun at this attempt at cosmic flirtation, it does usher in an incredible suspension f time and space. This crystallises around the Beach, and especially the lagoon, where Boyle’s direction is most inventive. We gaze at jellyfish from below, and look down at lanterns as they float overhead, while the Beach community spends most of their life half-submerged in the shallow lagoon, which bleeds into the beach, as it stretches back far beyond the shore. Apparently the production crew artificially extended the beach – which is actually Ko Phi Phi Le – and it shows, since the sand seems to stretch on forever, so crystalline that shore and water fuse into a single sublime pellucidity. In effect, the beach functions as an incentive to post-cinematic experimentation, culminating with the film’s centrepiece – a breathtaking scene when Richard and Virginie embrace while swimming amongst phosphorescent plankton. It’s here that we hear the film’s signature track – “Pure Shores,” famous for pairing All Saints’ RnB sound with the more futuristic flourishes of William Orbit, which peak as Richard and Virgine dive amongst the plankton, confounding any sense of up and down, future or past, as we seem to enter a world beyond the realm of classical cinema.
This scene also plays as a spiritual sequel to Romeo + Juliet, conflating the moment when Romeo and Juliet first glimpse each through the fish tank, with the porosity of Verona Beach, where we first glimpse Romeo – and where Leo entered cinematic lore. As the plankton scene consummates Luhrmann’s vision, it also shifts The Beach naturally towards tragedy, as a shark attack splinters the community, and Sal discovers that Richard left a map of the island with some other American tourists, who they now glimpse on the opposite shore, building a raft to try and join the community. At this point, the film comes full circle and starts to bleed into Daffy’s experience of the Beach – self-destructive and self-defeating – as Sal punishes Richard by forcing him to spend every day on lookout, telling him portentously that he has to stop the American tourists “by any means necessary” if they do in fact find a way to sail to the island.
On the one hand, this is the most powerful position and responsibility on the island. Not only does Richard have to guard the island from intruders, but he has to negotiate the space between the Beach residents and the marijuana harvesters. Moreover, his watch point is on the highest point of the island, providing him with a physical and mystical panorama over the Beach: “I was the only one with the overview of the island, the only one to have it connected.” Finally, in this position, Richard arrives at the epicentre of rave culture, and yet the experience is too overwhelming, initially forcing him to imagine his responsibilities as a video game to survive, before he overdoses on sensation and descends into a trance state. Nobody can stare down at the mystic eye of the Beach for too long, just as nobody can occupy the shifting centre of the rave continuum for too long without it destroying body and mind, as Richard discovers when he starts to have visions of Daffy once again, suggesting that this the mindset that Daffy also experienced just before he committed suicide in the hostel back in Bangkok.
As this rave perception collapses in on itself, and the more exploitative element of the Beach community comes into view, The Beach also reverts to a more familiar genre – the Vietnam War film. Richard styles himself as Rambo, engages in guerrilla combat with both the arriving American tourists and the marijuana harvesters, and finally enters into an insane dialogue with Daffy that is shot and styled like Marlowe’s final encounter with Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Just as Kurtz produces a perceptual limit, or cognitive overdrive, that effectively forces the end of Coppola’s film, so Richard sees the rave fantasy devolve before his very eyes, revealing that this new world order is even more indisiously indebted to the old world order, which ensares him in the rage of a Vietnam vet without having even experienced combat. Taking the elusive exchange between Marlowe and Kurtz, but stripping it of even the notional presence of a second party, Boyle presents rave culture as a simulation – the peak of 90s simulation – that is perpetually on the brink of crashing in upon itself. Hence its exhilaration and its danger, which coalesces here around a renewed conflict with Virgine and Etienne, whose French background transforms from an exotic detail to another partially excavated Nam substrate, before the three of them eventually make a pact to leave the Beach for good.
It’s at this point, finally, that we experience an actual rave, as Richard’s trance state segues into the trance music that Sal plays for the dance party that occurs on the night they leave. Finally, we’re in the midst of the exotic tropical dancefloor that rave culture evokes, but it collapses even more quickly into the same Nam pastiche, culminating with a Russian roulette scene that directly quotes The Deer Hunter. We can only approach the fantasy of rave, Boyle suggests, since to actually occupy it annihilates mind and body, meaning that rave is, in some sense, the essence of fantasy itself – explaining the offbeat magical realism that connects this film with Shallow Grave and Trainspotting in a rough trilogy. In a brief epilogue, the camera pulls back from a circuit-board rendition of the globe, revealing that we’re in an Internet Café, where Richard is finally telling his parents that he’s alive and well. You sense the internet domesticating the hyperreality of rave culture, but you also sense that rave culture is continuing in a parallel universe, deformed and turned askew, channelled into the “rage videos” that we see prompting the zombie apocalypse at the very beginning of 28 Days Later.