It was sin that cost humans paradise, and it's generally understood that the path back has high spiritual costs. In "The Beach," the movie made from Alex Garland's best-selling novel of the same name, Leonardo DiCaprio (himself heaven on earth to legions of teenage girls), portrays Richard, a soulless American who wants his transgressions and his paradise too. And like Richard, the movie seems to want it all: to be both a moral Rough Guide for Generation X and a Hollywood blockbuster.

In his first major role since "Titanic," DiCaprio plays a young backpacker with a GameBoy fetish who goes to Bangkok in search of thrills. No sooner does he slam back his first snake-blood kamikaze shot than he meets the drug-addled, aptly named Daffy, a fellow adventurer ranting about a perfect beach. Shortly afterward, Daffy (Robert Carlyle) kills himself, but not before tacking a crude pirate's map to the door of Richard's tatty hotel room. The map directs Richard to an idyllic Thai island, where a group of mostly European beach bums have set up a secret commune.

As earthly paradises go, this one is a definite contender: filmed on Thailand's Phi Phi Le, a small island near Phuket, the landscaped is filled with yellow orchids, ferns, and exotic palms. And yet the filmmakers couldn't stop themselves from making cosmetic improvements. They bulldozed the island's beach, stripped away native grasses and planted non-native coconut trees. The resulting controversy has inadvertently reinforced the movie's message that paradise is largely an illusion, and that ultimately we are responsible for our actions.

But let's follow Richard's lead, cast aside our moral reservations, and take in the stunning scene: The beach in question is a turquoise lagoon surrounded by white sand and hidden from the outside world by a ring of cliffs. Marijuana grows as abundantly as wheat on the prairie, and at lunchtime plump fish practically jump out of the surf onto your harpoon. The sun never seems to burn the skin. Richard has also had the good sense to bring along an olive-skinned French beauty, Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen), who in turn is accompanied by her equally cute, and uniquely ethical, boyfriend.

Swimming in moral lassitude, the movie needs some deeply bad people to serve as villains. Gun-toting Thai dope farmers allow the Lonely Planet brigade to make their homes on the island, on the condition that no one else find out about it. The urban dropouts are led by an English dragon lady named Sal (Tilda Swinton), whose sinfulness slides off into real menace. She protects her beach's secrecy by making her followers virtual prisoners on the island. Rebellion is not encouraged. "Out of sight, out of mind" is Sal's ruthless credo for anyone who stirs up trouble. Richard, dreamily absorbed in the seduction of Francoise, quickly becomes complicit in Sal's web.

Paradise-gone-bad inevitably invites comparison to "The Lord of the Flies," but clearly this kind of thinking is too much thinking. "There was no ideology," Richard's voice-over says in the husky tones of someone grown wiser through hindsight. "It was just a beach resort for people who don't like beach resorts."

At this point, the questions the movie raises get interesting: Are we humans unworthy of paradise? If such a utopia existed, could anyone lay claim to perfection? Is Eden itself not all it's cracked up to be? But director Danny Boyle, clearly more comfortable in the bleak urban setting of his last film, "Trainspotting," suddenly shifts gears. The Blue Lagoon morphs into a media-tronic jungle. Richard hallucinates that he's a character in a video game, the narcos grow violent, and the ghost of Daffy looms like Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness." In case anyone is too mesmerized by Leo's pec-flexing to follow this journey into Richard's dark heart, footage of Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" is spliced in to drive the point home.

These relentless jump cuts and the frenzied plot (which includes a Russian roulette scene straight out of "The Deer Hunter") bury whatever moral reckoning Leo's character experiences. Paradise, while a lovely backdrop, may not be sufficiently intriguing to carry a film these days, not when your target audience--Gen Leo--has been nurtured on wham-bam pacing in video games and cable TV. An ocean-liner picture needs a killer iceberg; there'd better be trouble in paradise. This time it's not the boat that sinks. It's the movie.

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