Richard, a young American seeking adventure in Bangkok, meets the eccentric Daffy, who tells him of a pristine, uninhabited island in the Gulf of Thailand with a beautiful hidden beach and lagoon. Daffy explains that he and other travelers settled there in secret several years earlier, but difficulties arose and he chose to leave. Daffy commits suicide, leaving Richard a map to the island. Richard convinces a young French couple, Françoise and Étienne, to accompany him to the island, and the three travel to Ko Samui. Richard meets two Americans who have heard rumors of the island, including that huge amounts of cannabis supposedly grow there. Before departing, Richard leaves them a copy of the map.
En route to the island, Richard becomes infatuated with Françoise. After swimming to the island from a neighboring one, they find a large cannabis plantation guarded by armed Thai farmers. Avoiding detection, they make their way across the island and are welcomed into the secret beach settlement. The community's leader, Sal, explains that the farmers allow them to stay so long as they keep to themselves and do not allow any more travelers to come to the island. Richard lies that they have not shown the map to anyone else, which satisfies Sal. The trio become integrated into the largely self-sufficient and leisurely community. The relationship between Richard and Françoise becomes romantic, and Étienne says he will not stand in their way if Françoise is happier with Richard. Tensions rise between Richard and Sal's boyfriend Bugs; when Richard gains celebrity by killing a shark, Bugs mocks him over the shark's small size.
When Sal selects Richard to accompany her on a supply run to Ko Pha Ngan, Bugs warns him to keep his hands off her. While there they encounter the Americans Richard met in Ko Samui, who are preparing to search for the island and mention Richard's map. Richard lies to Sal that he did not give them a copy, and she blackmails him into having sex with her. On their return to the island, Richard lies to Françoise about having slept with Sal. Things return to normal until a shark attack kills one of the community's fishermen and leaves another, Christo, severely injured. Sal refuses to compromise the community's secrecy by bringing medical help, and Christo refuses to travel to the mainland. His worsening condition affects the group's morale, so they isolate him in a tent despite Étienne's objections.
When the Americans from Ko Pha Ngan turn up on the neighboring island, Sal sees that they have a copy of the map and orders Richard to observe them until they cross over, then intercept them and destroy it. She tells everyone that she and Richard had sex, which leaves Françoise angry and heartbroken. Isolated from the group, Richard begins to lose his sanity, stalking the cannabis farmers and imagining that he is conversing with the deceased Daffy. The Americans reach the island but are discovered and killed by the farmers. Shocked at witnessing their deaths, Richard tries to gather Françoise and Étienne to leave the island. Étienne refuses to leave Christo, whose leg has become gangrenous, so Richard euthanizes Christo by suffocation.
Richard is captured by the farmers and brought before the community. The lead farmer gives Sal a gun loaded with a single bullet and orders her to make a choice: kill Richard and the group will be allowed to stay, or else they must all leave immediately. Sal pulls the trigger, but the chamber is empty. Shocked by her willingness to commit murder, the community abandons Sal, leaving the island and going their separate ways. Later, Richard receives an email from Françoise with a group photograph of the beach community in happier times.Leonardo DiCaprio as Richard, the film's main characterVirginie Ledoyen as Françoise, girlfriend of ÉtienneGuillaume Canet as Étienne, boyfriend of FrançoiseRobert Carlyle as Daffy, eccentric former member of the beach communityTilda Swinton as Sal, leader of the beach communityPaterson Joseph as Keaty, a member of the community who loves cricketLars Arentz-Hansen as Bugs, Sal's boyfriend and the community's carpenterDaniel Caltagirone as Unhygienix, the community's chefStaffan Kihlbom, Jukka Hiltunen, and Magnus Lindgren as Christo, Karl, and Sten, the community's Swedish fishermenPeter Youngblood Hills and Jerry Swindall as Zeph and Sammy, the Americans Richard meets in Ko SamuiAbhijati 'Meuk' Jusakul as the leader of the cannabis farmers
Additional beach community members are played by Zelda Tinska, Victoria Smurfit, Peter Gevisser, Lidija Zovkic, Samuel Gough, and Hélène de Fougerolles. Additional cannabis farmers are played by Sanya 'Gai' Cheunjit, Kaneung 'Nueng' Kenia, Somchai Santitarangkul, Seng Kawee, and Somkuan 'Kuan' Siroun. Saskia Mulder and Simone Huber play women who accompany Zeph and Sammy to the island and are killed by the farmers.
Ewan McGregor was cast as the main character before leaving due to disputes with the director. It was speculated that Boyle was offered additional funding under the condition that DiCaprio be cast and his character made American.
Real-life drama unfurled on set one day when the cast and crew were involved in a boating accident during production. It was reported that the incident involved both Boyle and DiCaprio. No one was injured.
The beach seen in the film is not the same as in real life. There is a gap between mountains on the actual beach in Thailand. The special effects crew digitally added some of the surrounding mountains during the post-production phase. The actual beach was also transformed from its natural look. It is reported that crew members flattened the beach with a tractor, much to the locals' dismay. The tsunami of 2004, however, has reshaped the beach to its natural look.
Boyle has been cited saying that the look of the jungle scenes in the film was inspired by the Rare/Nintendo game Banjo-Kazooie.
The waterfall scene, where DiCaprio and others jump from a high cliff to the water below, was filmed in Khao Yai National Park in central Thailand, at the Haew Suwat Waterfall.
The map in the film was illustrated by the author of the book that The Beach was based upon, Alex Garland. He received credit for this as the cartographer.
Controversy arose during the making of the film due to 20th Century Fox's bulldozing and landscaping of the natural beach setting of Ko Phi Phi Leh to make it more "paradise-like". The production altered some sand dunes and cleared some coconut trees and grass to widen the beach. Fox set aside a fund to reconstruct and return the beach to its natural state; however, lawsuits were filed by environmentalists who believed the damage to the ecosystem was permanent and restoration attempts had failed. Following shooting of the film, there was a clear flat area at one end of the beach that was created artificially with an odd layout of trees which was never rectified, and the entire area remained damaged from the original state until the tsunami of 2004.
The lawsuits dragged on for years. In 2006, Thailand's Supreme Court upheld an appellate court ruling that the filming had harmed the environment and ordered that damage assessments be made. Defendants in the case included 20th Century Fox and some Thai government officials.
After the film premiered in Thailand in 2000, some Thai politicians were upset at the way Thailand was depicted in the film and called for it to be banned. The depiction of the drug culture was said to give Thailand a bad image and having a statue of Buddha in a bar was cited as "blasphemous".
The soundtrack for the film, co-produced by Pete Tong, features the international hits "Pure Shores" by All Saints and "Porcelain" by Moby, as well as tracks by New Order, Blur, Underworld, Orbital, Faithless, Sugar Ray, and others. Leftfield's contribution to the soundtrack, "Snakeblood", was found to have sampled Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's "Almost" without permission, leading to a lawsuit; band member Neil Barnes said he forgot to remove the sample from the finished track. The songs "Synasthasia" by Junkie XL, "Out of Control" by The Chemical Brothers, "Fiesta Conga" by Movin' Melodies, "Redemption Song" by Bob Marley, "Neon Reprise" by Lunatic Calm and "Smoke Two Joints" by Chris Kay and Michael Kay were also included in the movie but omitted from the soundtrack. The teaser trailer for the film featured "Touched" by VAST.
The film score was composed by Angelo Badalamenti, and a separate album containing selections of his score was released as well.
Though the film was commercially successful it was largely panned by critics. It has a 19% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 116 reviews, with the critical consensus being that the film is "unfocused and muddled, [and] a shallow adaptation of the novel it is based on" although it contains "gorgeous cinematography"; despite this, it maintains a score of 43/100 on Metacritic, based on 34 reviews.
Critics suggested that DiCaprio's fame post-Titanic might have contributed to the financial success of this film, which came out less than three years after the James Cameron blockbuster. CNN's Paul Clinton said "Leonardo DiCaprio's main fan base of screaming adolescent girls won't be disappointed with The Beach. The majority of the film displays the titanic-sized young heartthrob sans his shirt in this story about the pseudo-angst and alienation of a young man from the United States escaping civilization and his computer-obsessed generation." He agreed with most others that The Beach was "nothing to write home about". DiCaprio was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Actor for his work on the film.
The budget of the film was US$50 million. Global takings totaled over US$144 million, of which US$39 million was from the USA.
Director Boyle has spoken negatively of the film, telling a Philadelphia audience in 2017 that he realized halfway through filming that he "didn't like any of the characters."
The film has been released on VHS and DVD. The standard DVD release included nine scenes that were deleted from the movie, including an alternative opening which to a degree resembles the one in the novel, were later included in a Special Edition DVD release, along with Danny Boyle's commentary on what might have been their purpose. There is also an alternative ending which depicts Sal committing suicide and everyone loading up on a boat from the raft.