This review was first published, in audio form, on StarShipSofa Number 181 http://www.starshipsofa.com/blog/2011/03/23/starshipsofa-no-181-nebula-nominated-adam-troy-castro/
After a suitable pause, here is the print version…
On The Beach – A Review From The Jacaranda City
Welcome to the first of my short talks on science fiction movies that, whatever their status when they were first released, have somehow slipped into the nether regions of the collective consciousness. I’ll be attempting to summarise each movie and pointing out just why I feel that it is worth searching for these unregarded gems.
With the Middle East seemingly heading for greater conflict, death and destruction; and with nuclear reactors in Japan threatening to go into meltdown; my mind was drawn back to a classic movie of the late 1950’s, Stanley Kramer’s “On The Beach”. Adapted from Nevil Shute’s novel and starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Hopkins and showcasing Fred Astaire in his first dramatic role.
An antiwar movie whose key message comes across through observing the details of a range of individual responses to the imminent date with a cloud of radioactive dust. It asks the viewer the question what would you do if almost everyone in the world were dead, and you knew that you too would be meeting your maker in five months time. Here we have a scientist who wants to win just one motor race before asphyxiating himself, a naval officer and his wife who take the life of their child and then their own, or the party animal who turns to the bottle and to an affair with a visiting submarine captain before he opts to leave her and die with his crew back home in California.
Released the week before Christmas 1959, now that must have cheered up cinemagoers as they contemplated the last minute search for a Barbie doll or a Corgi Cadillac, the movie was presented as significant by United Artists, in fact it premiered in 18 cities around the world, including Washington DC and Moscow. As I was only a baby during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 I didn’t experience the fear at first hand, but, On The Beach, gives one a feeling for that era.
A trite summary of the plot would be, US submarine arrives in Australia after a nuclear war, only a few people in Australia and the submariners have survived. Nuclear fallout is on its way and everyone is going to die. A phantom Morse code message is received and the submarine investigates, finding that it’s a windblown coke bottle in an American power plant that is tapping the transmitter. Submarine returns to Australia a month before the arrival of the deadly cloud. Everyone deals with their own inner devils, and then dies. There 30 seconds and its done. But the power of the movie is in the time that it takes to say this, at two hours and fourteen minutes it can seem long, but, to me, that’s the point, you get to see the everyday lives of the characters, even as they deal with the almost unimaginable stress of their situation, and so, when they all face their fate in different ways, they all seem real. In Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 1969 book, “On Death and Dying” she describes the five stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. I wonder if, a decade before, she watched this film, as it takes the characters through each of the five stages as we sit, silently watching, wondering what our response would be…
In relation to the craft of the film, there are six “dutch angle shots” peppered throughout the movie, the tilted angle serving to highlight the alienation and disorientation. For example as Peter and Mary contemplate taking the Government issue suicide pills that will allow them to avoid the lingering death of radiation sickness, or when Admiral Bridie and his secretary Hosgood drink a toast to a “blind, blind, world”.
There are repeated metaphors in the movie, for example the atomic race is tipped the nod in Dwight Towers, the nuclear submarine captain’s, sailboat race and in Julian Osborne, the nuclear scientist’s, car race, where, no matter how fast the two go, they cannot avoid the nuclear destruction that they have been a part of creating.
There has been a lot of discussion over the years of the science in both the novel and the film; around decay rates of radioactive fallout and the level of mixing of the northern and southern hemisphere’s weather systems. However, to me, that’s incidental. The movie today could be about the last few humans surviving some global ecological catastrophe and waiting to die. The point is that the movie is about the humans, about their coming to terms, or not, with their fate, both personal and, for the world watching the movie, political. The final scenes are of an empty and desolate Melbourne with a banner from a religious gathering at the city’s centre. The banner reads “There is still time… brother” and the final shot of the movie is a close up of the banner.
Now, someone very dear to me has an almost pathological aversion to “drama”, black and white movies are also a hard sell. I could get her to sit on the couch by describing this movie as science fiction, but, she’s from the Margaret Atwood school of thought. As the sainted Margaret would say “it contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians.” But science fiction it most certainly is. For those of you who, sometimes, want a break from the bangs and the whistles, the lasers and the light shows, rent a copy of “On The Beach”. Not a cheery movie, in fact it left me with that sadness one experiences when watching something terrible and yet inevitable. If a good movie is about producing an emotional reaction then this is definitely one.
So, that’s the first of my reviews, recorded in the depths of my walk in closet. It’s time now for me to go and watch a movie…