15 March 2006 | mstomaso
Too real to be science fiction?
Even writing the most basic mention of On the Beach's plot involves spoilers, so I've checked the spoiler radio button and will proceed to discuss the film with minimal reservation. I won't give away the ending, however.
On the Beach is based on the mid-20th century novel of the same name by Neville Shute, and offers a more elaborate and engrossing treatment of its subject than the original classic film (1959) starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire. This Showtime original is an hour longer than its predecessor, and will likely bore some of the more impatient members of its audience. Unlike most contemporary sci-fi, this is no action film, but a sombre, depressing, examination of the self-destruction of the human race through nuclear war.
Never over-the-top, alarmist, or politically biased, On the Beach simply presents the stark reality of its premise, and uses finely developed characters to give context, shape and meaning, to the experience. the cast is easily equal to its predecessor, with Armand Assante and Rachel Ward particularly illuminating their roles.
Assante plays an American nuclear submarine commander who has outrun the nuclear fall out and managed to surface near Australia, as that continent prepares to experience the first effects of the radiation now permeating earth's atmosphere. All around, people are preparing to die. The most sought after commodity is a do-it-yourself family suicide kit. Immediately enlisted by the Australian government to carry out a top-secret mission to investigate an IP signal coming from Anchorage Alaska, Assante is assigned an Australian military liaison (Grant Bowler) and a scientist (Bryan Brown)and asked to turn his boat around in search of humanity's last hope. In his few days on land before this fateful journey, Assante befriends his liaison's family, developing a special affinity for his sister-in-law, the playful Rachel Ward.
My plot summary takes us about 1/3rd of the way through the story, but sets up all the major elements of On the Beach.
Why does this film work so well? The cinematography is good, but not excellent. The direction is excellent and the cast is exceptionally good. But more than anything else, On the Beach makes its point because the script and story are deeply humanized by the complex and bold characterizations. The characters have interesting back-stories and deal with their harrowing predicament in very different ways. You not only feel as if you know these people, but you like them and sympathize with them - even the more despicable characters.
This is a great piece of classic science fiction, recommended to all, but those with a limited attention span should opt for the 1959 version instead.