The Beach as Paradise Lost

February 18, 2000

By Michael Jessen

As the February blahs descend like snow-filled clouds over the Kootenays, The Beach - Leonardo DiCaprio's thirteenth movie - swoops into theatres, perhaps to offer solace if not sun, to those who can't escape from winter's grip.

But rather than presenting the bliss and contentment usually associated with wintry escapes, the motion picture serves instead as an allegory about turning Heaven into Hell.

The film is based on Alex Garland's 1997 cult novel of the same name about young travelers searching for adventure in a Garden of Eden. Set on legendary Ko Pha-Ngan island, a 20-square-mile, palm-fringed, mountainous speck off the eastern coast of Thailand, the beaches are pristine with white sands, yellow boulders, coral reefs, and the gentle sound of slapping waves. The book has added thousands to both Garland's bank account and the six and a half million people who annually seek out the sun-drenched charms of this Southeast Asian country.

Ironically, Garland - in a bit of Utopian satire - attempts to discourage the "backpacker cult" that swarms the indigenous cultures and beaches of this land and many others all over the world. By no means a joyous travelogue of being a beach bum, Garland's story plumbs the sober consequences of life on the perfect beach. This is not a retelling of The Blue Lagoon; no, more like Lord of the Flies meets Apocalypse Now. It is, as one reviewer wrote, "a luminous voyage into the dark side of humanity's increasingly tenuous dreams of paradise."

No wonder DiCaprio chose this film to collect his first $20 million paycheck since his starring role in Titanic which sailed to the all-time U.S. box office record of $600,743,440 and counting. The resulting global onslaught of "Leomania" caused DiCaprio to battle with the demons of wild success. After reading 100 scripts, he found this movie had great things to say.

"It was about how my generation is desensitized, influenced by television and media and the movies," DiCaprio said in an interview. "We really have a lack of tangible connection with real emotions anymore. My character is on a journey to search for something that he doesn't know what it is."

DiCaprio's status as teenybopper heartthrob lands him on the cover of the February 21 issue of Time magazine with a special section, appropriately entitled Visions 21. The 25-year-old actor tells Joel Stein his generation has "never had anything to fight for, so we're constantly looking for things to believe in" and "an emotional event in real time."

Despite a "daring, assured performance" by DiCaprio, Time's Richard Corliss and most critics give the film mixed reviews. The movie grossed a disappointing $15 million in its first weekend of release in the U.S. It sank like the proverbial stone by earning only $7 million in its second weekend. Seems like another film about young people with the best of intentions turning an island paradise into a jungle hell is just too much like art imitating life.

The battering 'The Beach' is taking at the box office could also be blamed on a boycott organized by environmental groups who are calling the film the "bulldozer movie." While 20th Century Fox paid 4 million baht (about US$108,000) plus a 5 million baht (about US$135,000) deposit to the Royal Forestry Department of Thailand for the rights to film at Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh Island, the studio ordered some renovations to this national park that angered many around the world. Not satisfied with the appearance of the beach, Fox ordered the removal of some vegetation and "planted" 60 additional palm trees. Despite claims by Fox that it has restored the beach, sand dunes were severely impacted during last fall's monsoon season and a law suit against Fox is proceeding through the Thai courts.

Others are incensed with a joint campaign by Fox and the Tourism Authority of Thailand to promote 'The Beach' movie and Thailand's beaches to international tourists. The country is already a haven for many young "travelers" who search out cheap digs and drugs and rave the night away at Full Moon parties, says author Karl Taro Greenfeld in an article in the Visions 21 section of Time. Even Garland, himself a young traveler at age 17, came to realize the destructive nature of those who treat Southeast Asia as their adventure playground. Garland is highly critical of the pious traveler who seeks virgin spots unsullied by tourists and then mucks them up himself. That is the fate of his novel's main character named Richard, played by DiCaprio in the movie.

While half of the world's population is under the age of 20, the young are not alone in the search for Shangri-La. In the near future, Stephen Paysse, Melanie Smith, and Richard Ford are hoping to move to Nelson, a place they view as a heaven-of-sorts on earth. All three are among the out-of-town electronic eavesdroppers who subscribe to West Kootenay online message boards, keeping in touch with a place they one day hope to settle in. When contacted to ask how they would feel if Nelson were to undergo massive development before they come, all express concerns about growth. Ford, who lives in Calgary, finds Cowtown "too big, expensive, and crowded" and believes Nelson has the "benefits and neighbourliness of a small town" and "the sophisticated culture of a larger urban area." Paysse has "had an on-going love affair with Nelson and the Kootenays" but he is worried about destructive development under the guise of economic growth. "Just watching the decimation of the forests has bothered me," Paysse says. "I would be rather intolerant of excessive urban development in Nelson," Smith says bluntly. "I understand and believe that there are certain conveniences that require some development, but airports and sky-rises are the very thing that I'm striving to get away from, and the last place I'd want to see them would be a beautiful place like Nelson."

Ford and his family are not against development, "but we would prefer it be gradual, controlled, and to a theme." Paysse has employed himself as a general contractor building "in-fill" housing rather than contributing to the sprawl practiced by other land developers. "One thing is certain," says Paysse, "that without planning on the part of local government, development is inevitable, and destructive at the same time. It is a community issue, and there needs to be a forum where all voices may be heard. Most importantly, I believe that there needs to be a plan in place that allows for acceptable growth to insure the life of the community and at the same time protect the environment and the magic that exists there." Smith is of the opinion that people are not meant to live in big cities. "I believe that the paranoia and the 'dog-eat-dog' attitude that is perpetuated in cities brings out the absolute worst in people: traffic, noise, crime, excessive competition, excessive cost of living - all these things breed only hostility and aggression." Smith wants to move to Nelson to "focus on art, charity, community, family, and peace."

DiCaprio's meteoric fame after 'Titanic' undoubtedly made him a target of Thai environmentalists. No similar protests occurred in 1995 when 'Cutthroat Island' was filmed at Maya Bay. "Using my name obviously would bring more attention to Thai environmental issues generally," says DiCaprio. "Absolutely nothing wrong was done to that island; the work the production did in fact improved its condition. If anything, our people took meticulous care with every little branch." Two environmental watchdog groups, EcoLert and Reef Watch, have also exonerated the movie studio. In his real (as opposed to reel) life, DiCaprio is proving that one person can make a difference. Or at least try. He has just been named chairperson of EarthFair 2000, a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Earth Day in Washington, D.C. on April 22. He has a portfolio of ethical investments that are sensitive to environmental issues. Next year, he is planning to buy a hybrid electrical-gas car.

Whether you live in Thailand or the Kootenays, whether you're a movie star or an average Joe, life is a constant struggle to maintain a paradisiacal community. If we can find ways to bring sustainability to our paradises, perhaps young people won't have to leave home in search of it. And perhaps those who wish to share it can, without fear of a future that may have no room for the Shangri-La we all search for.

ONE SMALL STEP - Eben Fodor is a community planning consultant who urges people to "make your community the kind of place it should be" in his book Better Not Bigger. "Stop thinking about escaping to some better place over the horizon. Citizens actively engaged in their communities will continue to be the strongest force for progressive change in the new millennium. A good place to start this transition is with a positive vision for an alternative to endless growth."

RESOURCES - Eben Fodor's book was published in 1999 by New Society Publishers. Articles about preventing sprawl and the myths of growth can be found on the web site of the Planning Commissioners Journal at www.plannersweb.com. The group Women's Voices for the Earth raised the first alarm about damage during the filming of 'The Beach'. Their web site can be found at www.wildrockies.org/wve/beach.htm. Students and teachers at Sriwittayapaknam School in Samut Prakan, Thailand, defend the film and have put together a web site that has links to just about everything associated with the movie at www.thaistudents.com/thebeach. Leonardo DiCaprio's personal web site is at www.leonardodicaprio.com. Alex Garland's novel was published in paperback by Berkley Publishing Group in 1998 and by Riverhead Books in 1999, to coincide with the movie's release. Garland's second novel is entitled The Tesseract and is also available in paperback from Riverhead.


All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.