On The Beach

Year: 2000
Production Co: Showtime
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Writer: David Williamson/Neville Shute
Cast: Armand Assante, Bryan Brown, Rachel Ward, Grant Bowler, Jacqueline McKenzie, Steve Bastoni
There's something about movies with an effective sense of doom. The most effective example for me is always Dawn of the Dead , the sense of running even though you know it's hopeless because death - and a nasty one at that – is going to catch up to you sooner or later.

On the Beach is such a movie. In director Russel Mulcahy's hands, it becomes a much deeper look at the personalities and situations involved, stretched out to a four-hour mini series.

And for the first time, it rings true. No more Ava Gardener playing a Melbourne socialite without even bothering to put on an Australian accent. Now Moira's played by Rachel Ward and she portrays her as a slightly desperate, slightly washed up party girl, trying to live life as full as she always has but with only weeks or less left to do it.

And modern special effects benefits the tension as well, scenes of San Francisco reduced to rubble through Towers' periscope shockingly realistic.

The story's much the same as Stanley Kramer's 1959 vision of Neville Shute's apocalyptic novel. Nuclear war has devastated the northern hemisphere of the world, and the cloud of deadly radiation is inching closer to Australia as the last vestiges of civilisation start to collapse.

As chaos ensues, a US navy submarine arrives to assist the Australian military apply theories that could at least save the last few humans left alive.

While there, Captain Towers (Assante) meets and falls for the spirited Moira (Ward), who's the ex flame of the reckless scientist (Brown) who wants nothing more than to return to his idyllic island and drink himself to death.

Moira's sister Mary (McKenzie) is devoted to her Naval officer husband Peter (Bowler), her daughter and the cute little house she's determined to finish renovating. She wants to believe they'll all be all right no matter how hopeless is seems.

When Peter is called away with Towers' command to investigate a faint signal in the northern hemisphere, hope starts to glimmer, but it's with the most heartbreaking of scenes that the crew, ashore in radiation suits in Anchorage, Alaska, realise what a cruel joke has been played by fate.

It's not like the Armageddon -ish last-hope-for-mankind kind of moment either, but the awful finality, Dawn of the Dead -style, that there's no hope, and everyone's going to die. The crew has no option but to return to Australia and outrun the cloud of poison they know will catch them in only weeks.

The strength of idea is testament to Shute's audacity, it's the rarest of sci-fi stories that we can relate to in a deeply emotional way – even post-apocalyptic adventures like Mad Max 2 are more like earth-bound Star Wars.

So we feel every heartbeat of despair and Mulcahy wrangles imagery out of the slight TV budget that hammers it home. Watching a married couple kiss, embrace their infant daughter and then swallow suicide pills with their last sip of wine is among the saddest scenes you'll ever see in a movie.

Powerful idea, effective execution.

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