On the Beach (review)

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Son of a Beach

The only reason to remake a film is if something new can be said or new insights can be found, or if it would just plain be fun to do so. But none of these are demonstrated by Showtime’s On the Beach, a pointless, overlong update of the 1959 classic that wasn’t exactly crying out to be updated. If this is how boring humanity can be, good riddance to us all, I say.

In 2006, a standoff between the United States and China over the independence of Taiwan triggers global nuclear war — or, as one of the characters here actually says, “nukular” war. The Northern Hemisphere is radioactive toast, so American submarine commander Dwight Towers (Armand Assante: The Road to El Dorado) takes his boat south in the hopes that Australia might be rad-free. It is, though the Aussies are just biding their time till the radiation drifts south and kills them all. While they wait, Dwight and his new friends will enact humanity’s final soap opera.
As in all good bad melodrama, everyone who might conceivably be able to save the world all happen to know one another. Dwight puts himself, his sub, and his men under the command of the Australian government, and is immediately enlisted for one last mission: to take his boat far north, above the 60th parallel, on the remote chance that some sort of scientific gobbledygook might have caused the radiation to drop way up there. Most scientists who study these things think this is hogwash, so why the Australian navy shanghais the most vocal opponent of such a plan, Julian Osborne (Bryan Brown: Grizzly Falls), into accompanying Dwight is a bit of a mystery. Except that Julian becomes a convenient character later, when Dwight will fall in love with Julian’s ex, Moira Davidson (Rachel Ward), who also just happens to be the sister-in-law of Australian naval officer Lieutenant Peter Holmes (Grant Bowler), who also will join the Americans on their mission.

The first hour and a half of this three-hour miniseries — why it was deemed necessary to drag this out is also a mystery — consists mainly of tedious arguments over whether or not the radiation will eventually drift over Australia; Julian, in his calculatedly nonconformist Hawaiian shirts and cargo shorts, ranting against the suits and uniforms who started the war in the first place; and Moira and her sister, Peter’s wife, Mary (Jacqueline McKenzie), fighting over which one of them Mom and Dad loved more. Characters introduce their sob stories with openers like “I’ve been looking back over my life…” as civilization devolves around them — horse-drawn cars and gulping down the last of the champagne become all the rage. And however impossible it may be to believe, the second installment is even more monotonous, as all hope gives out and everyone waits around for the radiation to hit. On the Beach dawdles so slowly toward the inevitable end that you find yourself wishing they’d all just die already so the movie could be over at last.

The most depressing thing about On the Beach is that it isn’t even depressing — it’s just dull. A few powerful moments get lost in the flotsam and jetsam of inanity. The cast wanders around indifferently, with the exception of Assante, who chews scenery as veins bulge from his forehead. It must be said, though, that right up till the end, when mostly everyone, in the grips of radiation sickness, is puking their guts out and bleeding from the mouth, Assante and Ward look fabulous.

The only rationale I can come up with for remaking On the Beach is that Australia is the new hot — and cheap — place to shoot movies, as evidenced here by the Aussie accents that creep into the voices of supposedly American characters. We can only hope this does not mean that plans are afoot for redoing Quigley Down Under or Crocodile Dundee, just because. Some things are simply better left alone.

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