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On The Beach (2004)
Director: Russell Mulcahy
review by John Percival
It's 2006 and a war between the US and China has ended with nuclear missiles flying from both sides. The result is that billions have been killed and the northern hemisphere is a radioactive wasteland. Australia remains untouched but the radiation clouds are headed their way. As the last days appear anarchy descends upon the cities. But there is one hope, a solo American submarine responds to a faint radio signal traced to Alaska.
On The Beach is a remake of the 1959 Stanley Kramer film starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire - which in turn was based on the novel by Nevil Shute. At over three hours long you would expect to be in for the long haul with this one, but it is actually an incredibly enjoyable thriller even though it's a little bleak. I believe the long nature of the film allows the characters to form fully and lets to audience invest emotionally in them enough to be drawn into the drama.
There is a lot of anti-American angst during the beginning of the film. Even though there are two sides to the war it seems very much believed that the US should have known better. This is changed later as the new American enemy becomes the only possible source of hope in saving humanity. Very different sides of society are shown in the post-apocalypse Australia. For the most part life is continuing as normal, there is still electricity, most people still work. However as the petrol supply runs dry we see a horse-and-cart frontier Australia re-emerging. Most people aware of the impending doom put aside differences whilst others go on violent rampages.
This is very much an Australian production and director Russell Mulcahy has brilliantly managed to weave this tragic human story between some very good special effects, especially for a TV movie. A veteran cast has been wisely assembled to bring credibility and life to the script. Bryan Brown has an amazing ability to appear almost the same brash Aussie in each of his movies, yet he can still convince us that he can be a brilliant scientist, or tricky bartender as in Cocktail. As Dr Julian Osborne, he is a rude, egotistic, alcoholic scientist, but we like him. Rachel Ward is Moira, a frequent flyer at the local bar. She is a carefree woman with a past she shares with Julian but, as the end draws near, she feels the need to be finally open with someone. The other corner of the triangle is submarine commander Dwight Towers. Armand Assante does a remarkable job portraying the pain of an American whose family and country have all been destroyed, yet he offers the only hope to the remnants of the world. Arriving in Australia he is forced to see everything he has lost as the country struggles on.
On The Beach is a grim warning to the world about the dangers of nuclear bombs. We are shown how the end of humanity is entirely possible. It should be required viewing for any country currently involved in nuclear weapon testing. For the rest of us aware of the atomic lunacy, we are presented with an intense love story vividly acted by a great cast and set against the backdrop of a smashed world.
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