On the Beach (1959)

Genres - Science Fiction  |   Sub-Genres - Message Movie, Sci-Fi Disaster Film  |   Run Time - 134 min.  |   Countries - USA  |  
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Released at the height of the Cold War (and when most nuclear-themed films were sci-fi horror films like Them!), On the Beach is a very flawed but intensely powerful film. Rarely one for subtlety when preparing one of his famous "message" pictures, director Stanley Kramer tends to overemphasize the horror that nuclear war represents, negating some of the impact. Indeed, it is when Kramer lets the simple facts speak for themselves -- the sight of people standing patiently in line waiting for pills that will release them from the impending doom, the chilling simplicity of the shot which shows us that the source of those faint radio signals promising life is nothing but the wind rolling a coke bottle onto a telegraph key -- that the film is at its most powerful. Also problematic (more so in the film than in the Nevil Shute novel) is the clich├ęd, almost soap operatic relationship between Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner and the somewhat melodramatic handling of other sections of the film. In spite of this, however, there's an overwhelming, desperate bleakness that perfectly captures the sense of hopelessness that is central to the story. The power of the film's message manages to overcome the lapses in its script and direction. The cast -- once one gets past some pretty unbelievable accents -- helps tremendously. Peck has rarely been more stalwart, Gardner delivers one of her finest performances, and Anthony Perkins is humane and vulnerable. Even decades after its release, Beach is a harrowing and devastating experience.